- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 23, 2008

“More than ever,” Mayor Adrian Fenty says in his fiscal 2009 budget documents, “the administration will economize the way the District Government works and do more with less.” Those words sound like a ringing endorsement of fiscal conservatism in a city whose federal overseers have been building larger and larger pork barrels and rolling them down Capitol Hill. And since we have yet to scrub Mr. Fenty’s budget numbers, we will — for now — take him at his word that the growth between the 2008 and 2009 plans is less than 1 percent. For now, in fact, we even accept him on his word that he will “eliminate vacancies for non-critical positions, curb fixed costs and reduce the cost of our financing obligations.”

We’re being generous because for a couple of sound reasons. The mayor would not set out to outright lie to the public about his, ahem, $9.4 billion spending plan, which increases spending on education, public safety and human services. We even like some of his proposals:

• Putting more art and music inside classrooms is a good thing. Such curriculum can help to raise literacy and math levels. Besides, why such D.C. schoolchildren learn to play the viola and the flute or the become budding artists without have to attend special schools like Duke Ellington School of the Arts? Why shouldn’t D.C. youth, like their Catholic and private-school counterparts, become as proficient and interested in playing the drums in their school marching band on their way to earning a college scholarship as a musician?

• Spending money on literacy and math coaches — in fact funding 180 slots next school year when none is there today — is the type of forward thinking that, if properly carried out, can stop the slide of arrested development that routinely befalls D.C. school children. A fact pointed out in 1996 — that the longer a child stays in D.C. Public schools the worse off he is academically — still holds true today.

• Bolstering the Metropolitan Police force to a strength of 4,200 sworn officers? Well, more officers on the streets and on patrol can prove to be one of the most effective antidotes to violent crime. The city has tried to many ineffective and ineffective community-policing methods. But as ordinary folk know, a strong policing presence where it really and truly matters — on the street is just what residents and businesses are waiting for.

(This short list hardly reflects the mayor’s spending plan. Nor does it reflect the mayor’s “vision” to made this capital a “world-class” capital (as we cited in a March 17 editorial). And at this juncture, that’s the rub. The mayor wants to change the city, and change can sometimes be a good thing. But change for the mere sake of change is not. We suspect what the mayor has been trying to say is that he wants to change “how” things are done by the city government. Will this particular spending plan get us there? Nobody knows.)

What we do know is that a budget plan — even after it’s approved by the legislature and Congress, and signed into law by the president — is never line-by-line in sync with actual spending. Agencies move funding around. Agencies sometimes don’t even spend funding, especially if the spending is tethered to mandates that an agency does have the capacity to fulfill. And sometimes agencies bust their budgets because of lax oversight or because officials were shortsighted.

Then there’s another reason. You hear politicians talk about it all the time. It is called “spending pressure,” and it arises when a spending plan falls victim to shortsightedness. Remarks by D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray hit the proverbial nail on its head: “With the U.S. economy at the brink of a recession, the Council will work with the Fenty administration to ensure that the budget we implement is fiscally sound, but also sensitive to the needs of the District”s residents, particularly in the areas of education, public safety, health and human services, and tax relief.”

Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi called the Fenty budget plan “fiscally prudent,” and, he said, the city will remain in good standing with Wall Street. But that will hold true only if spending doesn’t outpace revenue. Will the mayor, the chairman and the CFO make fiscal 2009 an exception to the norm?

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