Ward 5 Councilmember Zachary Parker Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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It’s rare to see much harmony at the Wilson Building come budget season, but the Council’s success in fending off the worst of Mayor Muriel Bowser’s proposed cuts has lawmakers feeling pretty chummy so far this year. The question is just how long those good vibes will last Tuesday.

Chairman Phil Mendelson’s proposed edits to Bowser’s budget, released Monday, earned pretty positive reviews from lawmakers and advocates, all things considered. His decision to redirect money from the controversial K Street Transitway and other sources into housing programs, in particular, quelled many of the gravest concerns about Bowser’s austerity measures for the 2024 spending plan. But lawmakers could still spar over what more the city could do for its lowest income residents if the District took in a bit more revenue.

Ward 5 Councilmember Zachary Parker is moving ahead with a proposal to pause the phaseout of a tax increase on large commercial property transactions, a move championed by progressive groups that Loose Lips first reported on late last week. Specifically, he is pitching an even more ambitious move to raise revenue than some of those groups originally envisioned, aiming to keep the tax hike in place for the next several years and raise nearly $391 million through 2027 for a variety of programs, which will surely dominate debate as the Council holds its first vote on the budget Tuesday. Parker expects to move these measures as stand-alone amendments, so they could pass with a simple majority of seven councilmembers as additions to the broader budget, much like the Council’s tax increase on the wealthy two years ago.

Mendelson and Ward 2 Councilmember Brooke Pinto have already come out as vocal opponents of the plan, arguing that leaving the higher “deed and recordation” tax rate in place will destabilize downtown transactions just as the neighborhood recovers, but Parker is taking a two-pronged approach to heading off such worries. For one, he plans to exempt all office-to-residential conversions from the deed tax across the District, since the real estate lobby was particularly concerned about the tax’s impact on these costly projects that are crucial to downtown’s revitalization. And Parker plainly hopes to overcome any other hesitancy by showering a variety of lawmakers’ pet programs with money.

“It is easy to dehumanize these unmet needs in conversations about a ‘tough budget year,’” Parker writes in a letter to his colleagues Monday. “It is easy to fall into the trap of believing that this is a moment where our hand is forced, and we have no choice but to acknowledge that more District residents will undergo the trauma of losing their home or living in hunger. But we do not have to accept that the past will be prologue. We have agency. We have a choice to make. We must center our comeback plan around investments in District residents.”

There’s still no guarantee the plan will pass; though the Council has taken a leftward turn on economic issues in recent years, few lawmakers were willing to tip their hands publicly before Tuesday’s vote. “I don’t know if that’s going to materialize or not,” At-Large Councilmember Robert White, who Parker would probably need to win over if he hopes to get to seven votes, tells LL Monday afternoon.

But the benefits may prove too tempting for councilmembers to turn down. At-Large Councilmember Christina Henderson’s currently unfunded legislation to increase SNAP benefits is the biggest winner under Parker’s proposal, as it’s set to see $190 million over the next four years. (It could cost more like $213 million, per Chief Financial Officer Glen Lee’s estimates, though some suspect that’s an inflated price tag.) Parker’s own bill to create a D.C. child tax credit, delivering up to $500 per kid for qualifying families, would also get nearly $59 million in seed money. At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds’ legislation to tackle senior hunger, developed with former Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh, is in line for $26 million, the entirety of the local funding required to launch the bills’ various programs. 

Parker would also send $10.8 million in aid checks to workers excluded from federal pandemic relief programs. The Council agreed last year to $20 million in spending on those workers (which include undocumented people, street vendors, and others working in the informal, cash economy), but Bowser swept that money for other purposes. Mendelson called it a “deeply disappointing” move Monday, but also said that the budget was so constrained that he couldn’t find money to add it back to the budget; excluded workers have been demonstrating for weeks to get that money back, including an all-day rally at the Wilson Building Tuesday. These checks have been a top priority for Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau and Ward 4 Councilmember Janeese Lewis George, making it a particularly promising area of focus if Parker hopes to win votes.

“The money is there, they put it in the budget,” says Solomon Gebre Tekle, who was previously undocumented and has spent months advocating for this funding as part of the DC Excluded Worker Coalition. “Why are they holding it?”

For anyone concerned about housing, Parker wants to devote another $20 million to emergency rental assistance; Mendelson’s proposal would restore the program to its current, $43 million funding level, but advocates have pressed for more money considering the city had to close applications for the program midway through this year. Leaving the deed tax increase in place would also mean that another $60 million would flow to the city’s main funding source for affordable housing projects, the Housing Production Trust Fund, since that loan program automatically receives a portion of this tax revenue. (After years of increasing the fund, Bowser actually pulled back on money for it in her proposal this year.)

Interestingly enough, White and Mendelson have their own plans for dedicating deed tax revenue, which could disrupt Parker’s calculations for this spending. The Council chair is pitching a new requirement that 15 percent of the revenue go to the D.C. Housing Authority to provide a stable funding source for public housing repairs. White, the housing committee chair, says he requested this dedicated revenue source to give the agency a funding “floor” each year and make it easier to do long-term planning. This money is designed to augment the $115 million Bowser proposed sending DCHA over the next two years, and would start providing about $75 million to the agency starting in 2028.

“It says to residents in public housing: We get that there are serious issues with our public housing stock, and we’re serious about having a dedicated revenue source to get on top of the maintenance backlog,” White says, arguing that Bowser’s funding proposal “didn’t express seriousness about getting units back online and maintaining the units people are living in.” 

At the same time, he hopes the delay in sending over the money “gives DCHA time to build capacity,” considering agency leaders said they would have trouble spending any additional money they received. White expects this stable funding source will also help make the agency more attractive as it recruits an executive director to replace Brenda Donald, who is retiring sometime in the next few weeks.

“If the best and the brightest don’t believe there is a path to succeed here, they won’t apply,” White says. “And we need serious talent in that agency.”

The budget vote will likely take all day as the Council hashes out the deed tax issue and other, smaller matters. Other notable changes in the newest budget proposal include:

  • Mendelson sided with Pinto’s recommendation and agreed to include a measure that would restore funding for school resource officers. The Council voted just last year to reject a similar proposal from Mendelson and Bowser, but the composition of the body has changed since then, and the changing tenor of the crime debate in the city could sway lawmakers this time.
  • White managed to get $100,000 to fund a lower cap on rent increases at rent-controlled units. The Department of Housing and Community Development claims it needs the money to manage administrative costs associated with the change, a budget demand that scuttled his previous efforts to set a new cap. He’s proposed a ceiling of 6.9 percent increases for these apartments, but he says he’s still working out how to get that included in the budget. Some advocates have pressed for a lower, 5 percent cap, and suspect the votes may be there for a lower number. This is likely to emerge as an issue in the second vote on the budget on May 30.
  • Mendelson agreed to send another $15 million in funding for charter school teacher pay, since the sector has been agitating for raises that would match those won by the Washington Teachers’ Union for D.C. Public Schools teachers. The charters are still well short of that amount, a move that leaders in the sector have called a violation of D.C. funding parity laws. Mendelson also added $3.9 million to set up a pilot program for flexible teacher scheduling at a dozen schools, another key demand of education advocates.
  • On the Department of Forensic Sciences, Mendelson agreed with Bowser’s proposal to transfer its public health laboratory over to the Department of Health, but would not assent to transferring crime scene technicians at the lab over to the Metropolitan Police Department, a change that some feared would further erode the department’s independence from law enforcement. The Council chair also blocked the mayor’s efforts to move the crime lab back under her control instead of making it an independent entity, which would essentially reverse reform legislation the Council passed last year. However, that bill remains unfunded, so the process of making the lab independent will need to wait at least a year.
  • Speaking of legislation still waiting on funding, the budget includes money to help a series of measures go into effect, such as the bill giving voting rights to noncitizens, legislation to protect domestic workers, White’s bill to set new energy efficiency standards for government buildings, and a bill to seal records of people convicted of nonviolent crimes or marijuana possession. The budget also funds some bills that have yet to officially pass the Council, including White’s efforts to create a program for free master’s degrees in social work at the University of the District of Columbia and Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen’s bill to provide rebates for e-bike purchases.