The beginning of the end of the months-long annual budget cycle came with the Council’s unanimous initial votes on the bills comprising the District’s $19.5 billion budget. As the culmination of a budget process that included two rounds of diligent, agency-by-agency Council review and oversight of the government’s performance and proposed new budgets, the Council has now undertaken the first of three Legislative Meetings at which budget bills will be considered.
In the first of these three meetings, and in the first of two necessary votes on each measure, the Council unanimously approved the Local Budget Act (which includes the actual dollars-and-cents portion of the budget) as well as the Budget Support Act (which includes the policy changes required to enact the budget’s proposed financial measures). In response to the findings of their earlier performance oversight hearings, and reflecting councilmembers’ own policy objectives, the initial draft of the Council’s budget proposal included several substantial changes from the budget the Mayor proposed.
First and foremost was an increase in funding for schools with high at-risk populations, paired with a mechanism intended to lock in that uptick in funding. For years, the Council has championed increased funding for individual schools where the needs (and the at-risk population) are most concentrated. This has led to an ongoing battle between the Council and the school system, with the Council striving to ensure that the dedicated dollars reach their intended destination. In the budget approved by the Council, the $41.6 million bump in at-risk funding for schools with elevated numbers of at-risk students (40% for the first incremental bump, 70% for the highest boost) would be locked into school-by-school funding numbers. As a result, any attempted efforts to sideline that funding would be far more complicated, and much harder to hide.
In response to calls to support workers excluded from the formal economy, the Council’s budget bill extends the Earned Income Tax Credit expansion created in last year’s budget to those undocumented workers with a tax ID number. Given that this credit is paid out in monthly installments, it in effect creates an initial basic monthly income for these workers.
Regarding public safety, the Council budget bill largely keeps intact the Mayor’s staffing and hiring incentive proposals. One change made to the Council budget bill during the most recent Legislative Meeting was a reinstated plan to eliminate School Resource police officers from schools gradually across four years. The Council supported this plan in the prior year’s budget, the Mayor and the Council’s initial draft budget bill proposed removing it, but a majority vote of the Council put it back into the full budget bill that was eventually passed unanimously.
Two key increases in the Council’s budget bill were designed to assist those most in need. First, 400 new Targeted Affordable Housing vouchers were included in the bill, with priority treatment for those family facing a potential return to homelessness and eviction from Rapid Re-Housing. Due to an adverse cost estimate from the Office of the Chief Financial Officer, a broader Council plan to restructure Rapid Re-Housing was not included in the budget and will be handled through standalone legislation. Second, an additional $11.6 million will be provided to the Access to Justice Initiative, which provides access to free legal counsel in civil cases (such as evictions or appeals of denial of public benefits) for those who could not ordinarily afford it.
In the context of the Council’s breakup of the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, which was funded in last year’s budget, this year’s budget includes funding for 41 additional building inspectors, to help ensure that the spin-off Department of Buildings can most successfully tackle its core mission of enforcement of housing code, vacant property, and illegal construction violations.
The Council will take budget votes at two further upcoming Legislative Meetings. On May 24, the Council will take the second of two necessary votes on the Local Budget Act, as well as the sole needed votes on the bill including the federal portion of the District’s budget, as well the bill including supplemental spending from the ongoing fiscal year’s budget. The final vote on the Budget Support Act will be taken at a subsequent Legislative Meeting, most likely in June.