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This year’s budget battles injected some drama into the region’s politics.

In Virginia: “It’s violating our core principles and what we promised: not to raise taxes on the working families of Virginia,” said Republican former Gov. James S. Gilmore III. Forcing the GOP-controlled legislature into a special session, Gilmore’s Democratic successor, Mark Warner, emerged victorious after a 55-day budget standoff with $1.5 billion in tax increases to fund education and millions more to fund other human-services programs in the $60 billion state budget.

In Maryland: “In my 16 years, this is the first time we’ve had a governor who is not interested in solving the state’s long-term fiscal problems,” said Democratic House Speaker Michael E. Busch, after putting the kibosh on a plan backed by Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich to raise $800 million in the $24 billion budget by legalizing slot machines.

In D.C.: When the city’s finances go down the toilet in a few years, “I’ll be in sunny Florida,” said Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, according to multiple sources who attended closed-door budget meetings at the John A. Wilson Building over the last week.

And what brought on Evans’ relocation plan?

An effort to trim spending in the District’s fiscal year 2005 budget.

A little explanation: Back in March, Mayor Anthony A. Williams transmitted to the D.C. Council his fiscal plan for the upcoming year. The $4.2 billion local-funds budget translated into an 8.9 percent spending increase over the current fiscal year. In order to make his numbers balance, Williams proposed boosting revenue through increased fees for driver’s licenses, a tax on out-of-state municipal bonds, a health-care-provider tax, and higher parking fines, among other things.

Even though they have immunity from parking enforcement, the Shakespearean soliloquists on the council took advantage of their yearly opportunity to perform in front of the mayor in council chambers.

First they patted themselves on the back for being better fiscal guardians than their neighbors in Maryland and Virginia. “The future fiscal strength of our city is probably the most important thing we do as a government,” commented At-Large Councilmember Carol Schwartz.

And more than a few made a vow to do the impossible: slash the rate of growth in the budget. “When I’m looking at the budget, I’ll be looking to make cuts,” remarked Evans.

At first, the council’s penny pinchers set a goal of cutting approximately $100 million. The belt-tightening became much easier at the end of April, when D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi added $50 million in expected revenue to city coffers next fiscal year. The District’s chief bean counter said a revived hospitality industry would boost the city’s sales-tax collections. The bonus cash got rid of the need for higher taxes and fees in the FY 2005 budget.

Now the magic number was down to $50 million.

By LL’s checkbook principles, reducing a $4.2 billion budget by $50 million shouldn’t be too hard. In all, the cut amounts to 1.2 percent of the total budget. LL could accomplish a parallel savings in our personal expenditures by substituting our occasional lunch at High Noon near the Wilson Building for a Stouffer’s Five Cheese Lasagna With Tomato Sauce frozen dinner (on sale at Safeway, four for $10) microwaved at the office.

LL, however, has one advantage in the cost-cutting arena: We don’t sit on the D.C. Council, an institution that makes bureaucracies proud.

The problem comes right out of a Cato Institute pamphlet on government waste and excess. The council is split into 10 committees and two subcommittees, each chaired by a councilmember. Throughout most of the year, these hawk-eyed legislators perform oversight, try to spot misfeasance, and generally rake Williams Cabinet members over the coals.

But when budget time comes around, these same vigilant overseers link arms with agency heads in a united front against fiscal austerity. D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp bragged that many hours of oversight hearings had taken place in preparation for the budget vote. She and her colleagues produced pages and pages of committee budget reports. They met for hours in secretive, closed-door budget sessions. And how much fat did they trim?

Not much.

Just look at what happened this year with the Office of the Chief Technology Officer. According to the mayor’s proposed FY 2005 budget, the city’s technology department allowance increased 66 percent, from an allocated budget of $24.6 million in FY 2004 to $40.9 million in FY 2005.

Yet when colleagues asked Ward 5 Councilmember Vincent B. Orange Sr. whether he might find a million or two to cut, Orange said he would ask Chief Technology Officer Suzanne Peck if she could spare a dime, or, really, 10 million of them. Surprise, surprise: Peck said she couldn’t. She explained that her agency’s budget increase stemmed from capital projects that went operational this year.

And Orange came back to tell colleagues that they needed to look elsewhere for savings.

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As a defender of agency budgets, Orange has nothing on Ward 8 Councilmember Sandy Allen, who chairs the council’s Committee on Human Services. All spring, Allen’s colleagues have been looking for ways to slim down her committee’s slice of the budget pie: The agencies under Allen’s purview gobble up more than 25 percent of the local-funds budget.

And they’re not shrinking. Under the mayor’s proposed FY 2005 budget, the Department of Human Services budget would balloon 12 percent over FY 2004. The Child and Family Services Administration budget would increase by 27 percent. And the Department of Health would not get penalized for its slow response on lead and other public health matters this year: Its budget would grow by 8 percent.

The generosity toward human-services functions prompted At-Large Councilmember David A. Catania to push Allen to make some reductions. Allen asked Catania whether he considered fiscal prudence “more important than life.”

No one could quite settle that question within the confines of a council session.

What councilmembers can always do, however, is quibble, and there’s been plenty of bickering in Cropp’s budget talk-a-thons. For instance, after Evans at one point expressed his disgust at such high spending, Cropp challenged her colleague to come up with some cuts of his own. I’ll stand shoulder to shoulder with you if you want to make some cuts, Evans told the chairman. Cropp shot back that she wanted Evans to make some suggestions. I’ll do what you want to do, Evans replied.

The budgetary pingpong went on for a while, producing nothing but empty pledges and bored councilmembers. Sensing that her colleagues were tiring of the malarkey, Cropp reminded them that there’s a reason why she keeps the deliberations private.

Budget season highlights councilmembers who can read a spreadsheet and are willing to spend weekends processing acronyms. These days, that group consists of Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson and At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson. In the past week, the two crafted a plan to reduce spending by $54.3 million, which would lower the mayor’s original budget a little more than 1 percent.

The reductions would come across the board but would hit the human-services sector the hardest, slicing about $40 million from the approximately $1.2 billion budgeted for those functions. Patterson, who heads the Committee on the Judiciary, suggested cutting $4.1 million from the agencies under her own purview, including $3 million from the city’s police department.

Patterson’s colleagues, as well as the mayor, balked at that suggestion. No one ever suggests cutting funds for the police.

“Our proposal presents a more structurally healthy budget,” says Mendelson. “When we’re in a down cycle, we will look back today and regret we did not hold the line on spending.”

The Mendo-Patterson plan drew a predictable response. “The proposed cuts will only lead to disaster for our city’s youth,” Allen said on the dais Tuesday. “When you look at the human-services needs of our residents, I don’t know how you can ever spend enough.”

Ward 7 Councilmember and Committee on Education, Libraries, and Recreation Chair Kevin P. Chavous was outraged that the two councilmembers had found cuts in the city budget, specifically $4 million for No Child Left Behind. “I’m at wit’s end that we have this item before us. I’m going to comb this budget myself. I think we should all be ashamed,” he said.

Actually, only six councilmembers were so ashamed: The Mendo-Patterson budget-reduction package passed by a one-vote margin.

The up-for-grabs vote, as usual, belonged to At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil. Moments before the crucial vote, Mayor Williams, City Administrator Robert Bobb, and Chief of Staff Kelvin J. Robinson huddled around the conviction-free councilmember to persuade him to kill the cuts. Brazil decided to go against the administration’s wishes and vote for the package, despite the mayor’s vocal endorsement of his re-election campaign.

Brazil’s independent streak also angered Cropp, who last week strong-armed Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham out of the at-large race and made Brazil’s summer much easier.

With Brazil’s vote for fiscal discipline, it looked as if the council was actually going to cut the budget. Then Cropp decided that there was too much concern about this drastic development.

She delayed a final budget vote until Friday, May 14.

POLITICAL POTPOURRI

Mayor Williams wants D.C. Corporation Counsel Robert Spagnoletti to keep his opinions to himself right now, at least when it comes to gay marriage. A few weeks ago, Spagnoletti delivered a draft legal opinion on whether District law would recognize same-sex unions performed in other states.

Spagnoletti’s conclusion?

He’s holding his peace, at least for now. City officials have kept the corp counsel’s opinion under wraps, claiming attorney-client privilege. “The mayor is reviewing that opinion and has not released it to the public,” explains Office of Corporation Counsel spokesperson Tarifah Coaxum.

According to those familiar with the document, the corp counsel opines that D.C. would recognize gay couples legally married elsewhere.

Williams has been advised to keep mum on the marriage question. D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton as well as prominent gay groups including the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club fear the wrath of Congress if the District acted on the memo, and want the mayor to keep the document private.

“I think it’s reasonable for people to have guidance from their government on whether an out-of-state marriage under these circumstances is valid in the District of Columbia,” says Ward 1’s Graham, who says he has requested the draft opinion several times from both the corporation counsel and the mayor’s office.

“This is legal guidance. This is not a declaration of policy,” adds Graham. —Elissa Silverman

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