In his annual budget briefing Monday, Mayor Anthony A. Williams, the city’s first chief financial officer, surrounded himself with some familiar friends: charts, numbers, and all kinds of municipal revenue projections. The mayor used the props to advance a $5.6 billion budget for fiscal year 2003, balanced by $90 million in spending reductions—aimed mostly at social services and transportation projects—and a halt to the city’s 1999 income-tax-cut act.
Yet Williams had also managed to arrange an audience of some not-so-familiar friends—namely, a home-cooked majority of the often-mutinous D.C. Council.
“Let me say, Mr. Mayor, this is an excellent start,” D.C. Council Chair Linda Cropp announced. “Our chief priority is to improve the District of Columbia, and this budget does that.”
One by one, the other six councilmembers in attendance fell in line with the standard Williams administration press-conference rigmarole: Step up to the podium, smile, and issue a statement not exceeding one minute on fiscal prudence, mayoral leadership, and the perils of enacting tax cuts in troubled times.
Of course, not all of the councilmembers actually believe any of the Williams-branded budget rhetoric—the pro-Williams coalition features some of the most flexibly minded politicians anywhere. They all had their own reasons for helping the mayor. Herewith an outline of the mayor’s budget team:
* Chair Cropp: If a majority of your peers supports a proposal, reasons the middle-of-the-road chair, it must be a good idea.
* At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil: The city’s tax-cut legislation is to be phased in over five years—not quite long enough for the convictionless Brazil, who originally voted for it, to decide what he thinks about it.
* At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson: Sure, the Ward 3 resident has always opposed cutting taxes, but now he has an even better reason for linking arms with Williams in this election season: Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr.
* Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham: Unlike some of his colleagues, the self-righteous pol is on firm ground here: He has always fought tax cuts—as he’ll remind you ad nauseam.
* Ward 4 Councilmember Adrian Fenty: In the worldview of this constituent-obsessed politician, income-tax cuts would just lead to more sales of single beers and malt liquors at neighborhood bodegas.
* Ward 5 Councilmember Vincent Orange: Williams promised Orange a Kmart in Ward 5. Who needs tax cuts when you can have blue-light specials?
* Ward 8 Councilmember Sandy Allen: The tax-cut turncoat supported the 1999 bill, but now she opposes it. “This is the first year we’ve actually worked on a budget together prior to submission to the council,” Allen soberly explains. “It is not a perfect budget, it does need work, but it is the best since the mayor has been in office.”
Although impressive in number, the pro-Williams coalition lacks the salient trait of its council opponents: hardheadedness. In the coming weeks, hard-charging advocates such as At-Large Councilmember David Catania, Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, and Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson will be importuning their weak-kneed peers in search of a swing vote.
The gamesmanship, in fact, has already begun. “I’m amazed [Cropp] would say she supports this up front without going through the process,” says Evans. “The devil’s always in the details, particularly with this administration.”
Cropp explains that her compliment is largely self-congratulatory. The chair says she spent all last week negotiating with the mayor’s staff to include council priorities, including the corporate franchise tax reduction, the 25 percent cap on real-property tax-assessment increases, pay parity for nonunion workers, and a 50 percent investment of the District’s Tobacco Trust Fund. None of those initiatives had been included in her first sneak peak of the proposed budget, she says.
In her private negotiations, Cropp failed to rescue the planned reductions in the personal-income-tax rate, which for those earning more than $30,000 would have dropped from 9.3 percent to 8.7 percent in 2003, according to the 1999 Tax Parity Act, passed by the council and signed by Williams. In order to balance his budget, Williams sacrificed this portion of tax parity, freezing the top rate at 9.3 percent for those earning above $30,000, 7.5 percent for those earning between $10,000 and $30,000, and 5 percent for those earning up to $10,000.
“Essentially, he’s calling for a tax increase of $80 million dollars,” says Evans, referring to projected taxpayer savings from the act. “I find that appalling.”
Instead, Williams has proposed a “positive trigger” that would re-enact the tax reductions in 2004 under healthy economic conditions.
Cropp admits she’s unfamiliar with the administration’s proposal and hasn’t made a decision on that detail just yet. “The first time I heard the specifics on what the trigger would be was [Monday],” says Cropp. “I would suspect that the final trigger that the council would have will be different.”
When asked in the budget briefing whether the absence of six colleagues reflected a vote of no confidence in the mayor’s budget, Cropp demurred. “It doesn’t mean a thing,” she answered.
Then the chair changed her mind slightly. “It clearly indicates that [the mayor has] a majority of the council,” she said. “Anything else is ice cream.”
Unless one counts on a significant write-in vote like that promoted by flag-waving, horn-blowing, perennial mayoral hopeful Faith!, aspirants for D.C.’s higher offices must gather signatures of friends, neighbors, and innocent street-fair bystanders for their names to appear on the ballot in the District. D.C. election code requires that candidates for citywide office collect 2,000 signatures of eligible registered voters; those running for ward office need only 250.
But that would change if the D.C. Council enacted Bill 14-516, the District of Columbia Election Code Amendment Act of 2002, sponsored by Orange. The bill would allow those who receive the endorsement of a party executive committee to avoid the tedious signature-gathering process. It would also end the equally pesky candidate-petition challenge, which strategizing opponents often exercise just to bust some chops.
Last Friday, a handful of District do-gooders testified against the legislation. “I find it such an aberration from democracy that I hardly need statements against it,” harrumphed Jenefer Ellingston, a member of the D.C. Statehood Green Party.
Her fellow objectors came well-prepared with comments, though. “We understand that this bill was introduced to address perceived problems with the candidate-petition process. Namely, that petition signatures have become a nuisance for primary candidates,” argued Edward Levin, a board member of the D.C. Appleseed Center.
“The board is concerned that the legislative proposal of appointment by the executive committee of a political party might eliminate the challenge process for certain potential candidates,” testified Alice P. Miller, executive director of the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics. “Further, the process as it is being proposed in this bill could create the perception that some candidates are better than others, due to having received an endorsement from the party’s executive committee.”
LL reminds those concerned of one thing: Candidate endorsements would come from party institutions such as the D.C. Democratic State Committee, a body that can’t even decide what it thinks about its own elected officeholders.
Hence the only supporter of the legislation who testified last Friday: Democratic State Committee Chair Norman C. Neverson. LL understands his advocacy. The bill would grant Neverson and his party some relevance in the city’s political process by allowing state committee members to finally vote on something of significance.
Neverson offered his own interpretation of the legislation—as well as a somewhat oblique lesson in macroeconomics. “There’s a concept called laissez faire,” Neverson explained to the small audience. “It’s time to apply and proceed with that principle.”
* In the District, it’s often challenging to separate matters of church and state. “The clergy, by getting themselves established by law and ingrafted into the machine of government, have been a very formidable engine against the civil and religious rights of man,” wrote Thomas Jefferson in 1800.
LL believes our learned founding father might have a hard time on the D.C. hustings with that attitude.
Q.E.D.: When more than 250 leaders of the Washington Interfaith Network asked Mayor Williams and various D.C. councilmembers to fund three pet projects in a meeting Monday night, almost all enthusiastically agreed. The religious organization’s political agenda includes $2 million of public monies in fiscal year 2003 for construction of a family life/community center on the grounds of St. Thomas More Church, $500,000 for the renovation of recreation facilities at the Ferebee-Hope School, and a neighborhood revitalization plan for part of Ward 8.
At-Large Councilmember Carol Schwartz did not chime in with her colleagues’ amen chorus. “All my colleagues said, ‘Yes! Yes! Yes!’” Schwartz tells LL. “I said that I don’t work that way. I cannot commit the money to you. In a difficult budget season, I don’t think it’s fair to others.”
Some of the faithful booed her answer.
But Schwartz insists her moral authority remains intact. “It goes against my convictions to promise things that I can’t in good conscience deliver on,” she explains.
* Promotional efforts by city officials to entice visitors beyond D.C.’s Mall and monuments have apparently been quite successful. This week, for example, D.C. councilmembers got inundated with hundreds of e-mails from residents of California, Texas, and Georgia, among other states, who must have indulged in delightful strolls along controversial Klingle Road NW in their recent visits to the nation’s capital.
Klingle Road was closed to vehicular traffic more than 10 years ago because of disrepair, and its debated reopening has become a political hot button. In December, Mayor Williams said he supported keeping the road a haven for walkers and bikers.
The formulaic e-mails encouraged councilmembers to sign on to a letter authored by Evans, who supports keeping the artery closed. “I am writing to urge you to sign on to a letter being circulated by D.C. Council Member Jack Evans, in support of saving Klingle Valley,” writes one Debbie Powell of Avondale Estates, Ga. “A number of beautiful, old trees would also have to be cut down were this road to be reopened.”
“I have family in Washington, and I belong to several environmental groups,” Powell further explains in an e-mail to LL.
LL suggests canoeing down the Anacostia for Powell’s next visit.
* In times of fiscal crisis, elected officials are forced to make hard decisions. Some advocate for budget cuts. Others favor raising taxes. At-Large Councilmember Brazil decided to shave his mustache.
“We really have to face reality,” punned a clean-shaven Brazil, to those in attendance at Mayor Williams’ Monday budget briefing. CP
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