Jack Evans Report: Analyzing the District Budget
As I write this article, I am settling in for a weekend of work on my committee’s budget report. The Finance & Revenue Committee, which I chair, has the responsibility for oversight of the office of our Chief Financial Officer, as well as our real property tax appeals board, the convention center, Destination D.C., and the Commission on the Arts and Humanities.
Most people picture the budget as primarily a series of numbers, but there is much more to our budget documents than that. The budget is really a policy document. It outlines our most important priorities as a government and as a city, and describes how we intend to achieve our goals. There are actually a number of “words” that go with the mayor’s budget proposal – first are the “budget books.” This six-volume set of books comprises well over 1,000 pages of descriptions of the composition and function of our government agencies. The books also describe any changes in funding and goals from the prior year. For example, I recently oversaw the transition from our broken Board of Real Property Assessments and Appeals to a new Real Property Tax Appeals Commission, which has been going very well. The budget books are a great source for understanding the reasons and mechanics behind a transition like this.
Another important budget document is the Budget Support Act. This is a nearly 200-page legislative document that provides the legal authority for any action contemplated by the budget, such as the specific rules or criteria for a new tax (Don’t worry, there aren’t any new taxes in this budget!).
A third important category of budget documents is the reports and recommendations of the District Council committees, which brings me back to the opening of this article. My committee report is the best opportunity for me to express my views on the budget in a formal way. In years past, I have used my report the way a Supreme Court justice makes use of a dissenting opinion, to express the reasons why I disagree with the mayor or my colleagues on various proposals. Two years ago, I provided my rationale as to why it was a bad time to increase taxes and fees on our residents and small businesses, despite the fact that the majority of my colleagues did not support me and voted to raise a number of taxes over my objection.
This year, I am pleased to be able to support the budget as a whole. So, my report is more of a statement as to how I think the budget dollars should be directed. While the legislature has the “power of the purse,” the executive branch ultimately gets the authority to spend the money. With this being the case, it is all the more important that the legislature provide clear stipulations as to how the executive agencies spend the funds we appropriate. Last year, for example, we allocated $50,000 to an innovative nonprofit organization that partners with local farmers’ markets to provide incentives to lower income residents to make healthy food choices. The nonprofit partners with farmers’ markets to double the value of WIC dollars, or food stamps, for people who choose to make their purchases at the markets. After we made the allocation, though, the executive decided to use the money for a less-used voucher program, instead, rather than sending the money to the markets. This year, we will be more specific in our legislative language, while also increasing the funding for this important program. When I see a $2.5-billion Medicaid appropriation in our budget every year, it reinforces my desire to shape policy in a way that emphasizes prevention and gets more “bang for our buck.”
I also intend to unveil a new arts funding program in my budget report. While I have been largely pleased with the grant process of the Commission on the Arts and Humanities, I think these grants have been generally too small. This year, I will be making a proposal to dedicate 0.25 percent of our 6 percent sales tax, around $22 million per year, to fund the arts. From within this dedicated tax number, I want to support large art projects as well as small ones. Without city funding, we would not have an amazing Arena Stage facility, as well as one for the Shakespeare Theatre, or a revitalized Ford’s Theatre, among many others. Now that our revenues are growing again, we should recommit to enriching the cultural life of our city and providing this important supplement to the inadequate emphasis on arts education in our public schools.
I hope to have your support on these initiatives.