LO­CAL OPIN­IONS

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - ED LAZERE WASH­ING­TON

In these un­cer­tain times, the Dis­trict’s elected of­fi­cials must plan for a more dif­fi­cult fu­ture.

This is a time of great un­cer­tainty for all of us who call the Dis­trict home. Al­though our city is vi­brant and grow­ing, much of what we value is at risk. As D.C.’s elected of­fi­cials be­gin craft­ing their first bud­get un­der this new re­al­ity, the choices they make will of­fer a blue­print on how they will gov­ern in these un­cer­tain times.

Let’s start with the shift­ing fed­eral land­scape. Con­gres­sional lead­ers say they plan to dras­ti­cally re­strict fed­eral spend­ing on ev­ery­thing from Med­i­caid to food stamps. Pres­i­dent Trump has threat­ened to with­draw fed­eral funds to pun­ish cities, in­clud­ing the Dis­trict, that have de­clared them­selves sanc­tu­ar­ies for im­mi­grants.

Then there’s D.C.’s in­fra­struc­ture. Metro is strained by fail­ures at a time when our grow­ing pop­u­la­tion makes a strong pub­lic tran­sit sys­tem even more im­por­tant. The same growth af­fects the needs of our schools.

And too many fam­i­lies have been left be­hind in the re­cent eco­nomic boom, es­pe­cially in com­mu­ni­ties east of the Ana­cos­tia River. The loss of af­ford­able hous­ing across the Dis­trict is stag­ger­ing. We have the high­est rate of home­less­ness among 32 U.S. cities, ac­cord­ing to a re­cent sur­vey.

How should Dis­trict lead­ers re­spond?

The good news is that the Dis­trict’s econ­omy is healthy and it is adding res­i­dents, busi­nesses and jobs. Grow­ing rev­enue could help us weather a num­ber of these chal­lenges.

Yet our elected of­fi­cials ac­tu­ally have lit­tle abil­ity to ad­dress these press­ing prob­lems. And it has noth­ing to do with Congress; it’s be­cause of rules they im­posed on their bud­get choices.

Three years ago, the D.C. Coun­cil man­dated all new rev­enue go to tax cuts by leg­is­lat­ing a se­ries of tax-cut “trig­gers” when­ever rev­enue pro­jec­tions in­creased — ty­ing their hands from us­ing new rev­enue to ad­dress press­ing needs.

This puts the D.C. bud­get in a bind. Next year, school spend­ing will need to in­crease 6 per­cent to ac­com­mo­date in­creased en­roll­ment. Metro’s bud­get will grow more than 10 per­cent. With man­dated tax cuts, meet­ing these de­mands may force cuts to other ar­eas of the bud­get.

The D.C. Coun­cil fur­ther tied its hands by freez­ing any left­over money at the end of its fis­cal year. Ev­ery penny of a sur­plus goes into sav­ings. Yet the Dis­trict’s re­serves al­ready are at a record level, and the Dis­trict’s fi­nances are ranked ninth-best in the na­tion. The Dis­trict just an­nounced an­other sur­plus, but none of the $222 mil­lion is avail­able to be spent on things such as hous­ing or schools be­cause of this rule.

Fi­nally, it’s im­por­tant to note that the Dis­trict will pass its bud­get in May, be­fore Congress com­pletes its bud­get process and re­veals the full ex­tent of fed­eral cuts to the safety net. So what should be done? My or­ga­ni­za­tion, the DC Fis­cal Pol­icy In­sti­tute, is call­ing on Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and the coun­cil to adopt a more bal­anced ap­proach. That means put­ting tax cuts on hold for a year (now that we’ve had three years of cuts) and us­ing some of the grow­ing sur­plus for ur­gent needs such as af­ford­able hous­ing, schools and Metro.

We also rec­om­mend set­ting aside some of last year’s sur­plus in a spe­cial fund to ad­dress fed­eral bud­get cuts that may come af­ter the D.C. bud­get is adopted, to ease the pain and give us time to ad­just.

We are not alone. More than 50 lead­ing or­ga­ni­za­tions that ed­u­cate D.C.’s chil­dren, feed the hun­gry, house the home­less and ad­dress other press­ing needs have joined in this call. They ar­gue that in these un­cer­tain times, Dis­trict lead­ers should in­vest some of the ben­e­fits of the eco­nomic boom in press­ing com­mu­nity needs.

D.C. res­i­dents are proud that their city can be a bea­con of hope in dark times. And they will look at the Dis­trict’s pro­posed bud­get for fis­cal year 2018 to see whether it re­flects these val­ues. I hope Bowser and the D.C. Coun­cil will un­tie their hands and an­swer this call.

The writer is ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the DC Fis­cal Pol­icy In­sti­tute.

KATHER­INE FREY/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser ad­dresses a crowd gath­ered Feb. 13 to protest con­gres­sional con­trol over the Dis­trict.

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