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As Mayor Muriel Bowser‘s slogan “Pathways to the Middle Class” has morphed into “Inclusive Prosperity,” her budget has something for every social advocacy group to dislike, and a business tax cut that should go a long way towards aiding her re-election effort. It also portends a season of political theater that places D.C.’s class divide in high relief, as presidential and congressional prerogatives pose existential threats to the District’s neediest residents.
Howls of protest come amid the economic realities of a thriving city in a multi-jurisdictional region that competes for everything from businesses and schools to transportation options and qualified police recruits.
The $13.8 billion budget marks a 3.4 percent increase over the city’s current budget, but leaves a variety of constituencies wanting. Monica Kamen, co-director of the D.C. Fair Budget Coalition, says her group identified 15 fiscal priorities and called for roughly $300 million to end homelessness for 1,296 families and 1,303 individuals categorized as “chronic,” to repair D.C.’s public housing stock, and to fund the controversial Paid Family Leave Insurance Fund.
“The Fair Budget Coalition is dismayed at the spending priorities reflected in Mayor Bowser’s budget proposal,” Kamen says. “Despite having explicitly expressed concern at the threats to D.C. values by the Trump Administration, Mayor Bowser has proposed a budget that fails to adequately protect the lives and basic human needs of D.C. residents most at risk—low-income people.
“Now is the time to proactively invest in policies that truly allow residents to have the social, physical, and financial security they need to thrive. It means prioritizing [housing, civil rights, healthcare, food access, and fair taxes]. It includes replacing any lost federal dollars with local funds due to changing federal policy.”
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Kamen is not alone in expressing concern once the federal whip comes down, so $18.8 million in tax cuts for million-dollar estates, $23.8 million in tax breaks for businesses, $280 million to expand the streetcar system, and $145 million to bring to fruition development deals that have languished from one mayor to the next are salt in the wounds. “Affordable housing always seems to be too hard to find money for,” she says. “Cuts to the estate tax, in the context of Trump and the federal government? Will we raise the money locally? That has huge implications for the city. We just don’t see the steps to protect people on the margins of society.”
But isn’t Bowser still boasting an investment of $100 million in affordable housing, with At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds proposing an additional $20 million? “It’s not enough,” says Aja Taylor, advocacy director for Bread for the City, which was seeking $150 million. “The litmus can no longer be that you did more than the people who came before you.”
Granted, Bowser proposes an additional $10 million to preserve low-rent housing, $15 million for homeless services, and $8 million to reform the TANF time-limit policy, but that’s cold comfort for some. Budgeting for less than a third of what it takes to implement Bowser’s plan to end homelessness, and just half of what a task force recommended for public and public charter schools—charters receiving $83 million of the $105 million total—does not sound “inclusive” to Ed Lazere, executive director of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute.
“Instead of devoting our money to housing, schools, and other services, the budget puts tax cuts first,” Lazere says. “Mayor Bowser’s budget does not live up to her own goal of ‘inclusive prosperity’—ensuring that all D.C. residents benefit from our growing economy—and we call on the Council to do more.”
Bowser has even given charter school advocates something to gripe about: Ramona Edelin, executive director of D.C. Association for Chartered Public Schools, says that given a 4.3 percent increase in the city’s budget, a 1.5 percent increase in the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula—more than a percentage point below the expected rate of inflation—is inadequate. “In a year with a record budget surplus, the future of our city—its children—deserve higher priority,” she says.
But if it sounds as if Bowser is saying “Let them eat cake,” consider the realities of our porous regional economy, policy experts say. Yesim Taylor, executive director of the conservative-leaning D.C. Policy Center, praises the mayor’s business and estate tax cuts, and finds it interesting that Bowser has preserved half of the $200 million in excess revenue to replace inevitable cuts in federal dollars. (The other half goes to future salary increases and labor negotiations under the rubric of “workforce investment.”) “She is saying, ‘I’m going to put this here, but I’m not going to make it available for appropriation,’” Taylor says. “It’s not a slush fund, it’s truly a cushion. It will be interesting if the Council uses it as a cushion, or takes it for their own projects.” (LL recommends keeping a close eye on that particular $100 million.)
Even in these flush times, Taylor cautions tax-cut complainers against the impulse to dip into District reserves or excess revenue to fund the priorities of the social advocacy community. She points to the 1990s, when federal employment dried up and the local economy tanked, and emphasizes the need to continue to diversify the local economy. “No amount of taxes will solve our problems without a diverse economy,” she says, in anticipation of the inevitable cuts in federal dollars to D.C. “We survived the Great Recession quite easily because the federal government expanded its employment. So I find this focus on fiscal risk without considering economic risk as shortsighted.”