D.C. Council members televised their behind-the-scenes budget discussion for the first time Wednesday, giving the Washington public a clear view of their election-year spending intentions as the city faces an estimated $535 million deficit.
The transparency exposed lawmakers’ priorities: finding money to hire more D.C. workers and pay for raises, and protecting the safety net.
Jack Evans, Ward 2 Democrat and chairman of the Finance and Revenue Committee, grew heated and used profanity when, after five hours of deliberations, yet another colleague proposed raising taxes and fees to cover the costs of new hires and programs in public works and transportation.
All four ward members up for re-election want to either raise taxes or fees to help finance social services.
Jim Graham, Ward 1 Democrat who wants to raise income taxes, has proposed hiring additional public works inspectors to levy fines against D.C. residents and businesses that don’t recycle properly or that fail to cut their grass and trim their trees when the city thinks they should. He also supports raising dozens of fees and fines on motorists.
Mary M. Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat and head of the Government Operations Committee, wants to tax soda and other sweet beverages to finance the Healthy Schools Act. Lawmakers passed the anti-obesity measure, which faces strong opposition, before they designated funding for it.
Harry Thomas Jr. of Ward 5, chairman of Libraries, Parks and Recreation Committee, wants to restore funding for the city’s roving leaders program. The leaders counsel youths on anti-violence, healthy lifestyles, the importance of team spirit and other issues. Mayor Adrian Fenty cut 19 of those positions and Mr. Thomas wants to restore them all.
Tommy Wells, Ward 6 Democrat and chairman of the Human Services Committee, drew questions from around the table when he said, “I think the mayor cut with a pretty sharp knife. Our recommendation is to rebuild the safety net.” He asked his colleagues to help him restore $12 million in cuts made by the mayor.
Part of the money would hire new workers for the individuals with disabilities program, which has a waiting list of 2,800. The city program was designed to bridge the gap between when the application and receipt of benefits from the federal Supplemental Security Income program (SSI).
D.C. lawmakers created the program several years ago and expected to reimbursed by the federal government. But on Wednesday, Mr. Wells could not tell his colleagues whether the city would be reimbursed or not.
“This [proposal] doesn’t help us close whatever [budget] gap we have,” Council Chairman Vincent Gray said.
“Or it expands it,” Mrs. Cheh added.
Mr. Evans pointed out that when federal stimulus dollars and other one-time federal funds are removed from the fiscal 2011 spending plan, the city is living beyond its means.
“Our safety net has grown by 50 percent but our population hasn’t grown at all,” Mr. Evans said. “At the end of the day, there isn’t enough revenue even if you raise taxes to cover this.”
Lawmakers plan to reconvene Thursday to consider “unresolved” issues, including pay raises and proposals to close the budget gap, Mr. Gray said.
Mr. Gray is running against Mr. Fenty in the September Democratic primary for mayor, which is tantamount to the general election in the overwhelmingly liberal District of Columbia.
On Tuesday, the Metropolitan Washington Council of the AFL-CIO, which represents more than 200 labor groups and tens of thousands of D.C. workers and retirees, announced that it had endorsed Mr. Gray.