Council 101: Understanding the Budget Process

Urban myth famously, though seemingly inaccurately, states that workers start painting the Golden Gate Bridge at one end, and by the time they have reached the far end and have seemingly completed the work, they must instead go back to the beginning and start all over again. While not quite that bad, the District government’s budget process does operate somewhat similarly.

The executive branch gets the ball rolling

The budget process starts off in the executive branch. Each year in October and November, the Executive branch provides each agency with a target budget number for the upcoming fiscal year. Agencies return their draft budget to the Mayor and then meet internally in December and January to discuss opportunities for savings, potential increases, and other proposed changes. During this same time, the Mayor may reach out to Councilmembers for their input. In December, the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) releases a report delineating what it would take for each agency to maintain the same level of service through the next year. The Mayor uses this information when reviewing the budget requests of each agency.

In February, the CFO issues a revenue estimate that will serve as the “ceiling” for expenditures in the coming fiscal year. The Mayor then reconciles the agency’s requests, his/her vision for the District, and the available revenue to propose any cuts, increases, or changes in each agency.

Council Committees’ dual agency-by-agency review

Also in February, the Council undertakes the first prong of an agency-by-agency review process. This first analysis comes in the form of performance oversight hearings.  Each Council committee has jurisdiction over a very specific list of government agencies (link to list), and during the performance oversight season, agency directors respond to dozens and dozens of very specific questions from both Councilmembers and individuals.  Questions can be on any topic, but usually focus on what the agency is supposed to do, and how well it accomplishes that goal. One by one, every single agency of government receives this level of scrutiny.

In late March or early April, as the culmination of all the executive branch’s meetings with individual agencies, the proposed budget document is released.  The budget actually consists of two components—an operating budget, which covers ongoing operations, and a capital budget, which includes construction and renovation of the District’s physical plant.

Following the Mayor’s release of the budget, throughout April, the Council committees initiate the second prong of their agency-by-agency review, this time focusing specifically on the agency’s proposed budget. Of course, these budgetary discussions are directly informed by the responses to the many pointed questions so recently asked by Councilmembers and individuals at the performance oversight hearings.

The full Council has its say

In early May, the full Council meets as the Committee of the Whole for a hearing on the full budget. In mid-May, the Council committees individually mark up and vote on any recommended changes to the portions of the budget under their committee’s purview. The Chairman combines the recommended committee budgets into a single unified budget.

Finally, later in May, the Council votes on two pieces of legislation that make up the budget. First, the Council takes one vote on the Budget Request Act, which includes the actual budget numbers for each agency. At the same time, the Council takes the first of two votes on the Budget Support Act, which makes any legislative changes (such as creating new programs or adjusting tax rates) needed to implement the Budget Request Act. In mid-June, the Council debates the likely-modified draft of the Budget Support Act, and then casts the necessary second vote on the measure.

At that time, the budget is sent to the Mayor.  If the Mayor signs it, or if two-thirds of the Council votes to override a mayoral veto, the budget is sent to Congress for their traditional review. In April of 2013, District voters overwhelmingly approved a measure that would allow locally-raised funds to be expended without requiring Congress’ active involvement.   A lawsuit that could resolve this matter remains hung up in court.

After the Council’s summer recess wraps up, the entire process begins again, much like the apocryphal Golden Gate Bridge painting supposedly does.