‘Kerfuffle’ puts budget processes in question
Maneuver involves Gray, Brown, Gandhi
A budget battle involving Mayor Vincent C. Gray and D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown has raised serious questions about the efficacy of the city’s chief financial officer and whether Mr. Gray is delivering on promises to improve the handling of the city’s budget.
At issue is a budget maneuver facilitated by CFO Natwar M. Gandhi that Mr. Gray’s office requested and later denounced as the type of fiscal mismanagement practiced by his predecessor, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty.
On Jan. 17, Eric Goulet, deputy chief of staff and budget director for Mr. Gray, asked Mr. Gandhi to “set aside” more than $42 million restricted for special purposes that would be redesignated back to their specific purposes at a later date on approval of the council.
Of that $42 million, which came from several restricted funds, $13.4 million was in the Workers’ Compensation Administration fund, according to Mr. Brown’s office.
Workers’ compensation claims examiners and administrators, who spoke with The Washington Times on the condition of anonymity because they fear retaliation by the Gray administration, say the District is prohibited from using funds from the program, which includes money contributed by private companies in the city. They further say that the practice is long-standing, and that they have been complaining to the city for years.
An internal email obtained by The Times shows that senior staff at the Department of Employment Services (DOES), which oversees workers’ compensation, were told in 2009 that “the City will be taking excess workers’ compensation money from our budget.” In 2010, labor unions posed detailed questions to council member Michael A. Brown, at-large independent and chairman of the Committee on Budget and Oversight, that drew attention to the practice.
In a recent email, Amy Bellanca, chief of staff to Michael Brown, said the questions prompted a review that exposed the inappropriate use of the funds for a jobs program for ex-offenders.
“It is a real problem,” she said. “The cost of medical care is going to go up if we don’t protect these kids when they are 8 and under.”
Her bill was approved last week by the 11-member Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, which rejected the same proposal last year. Two Democrats and one Republican who voted against last year’s bill supported this year’s.
Sen. Robert A. Zirkin, Baltimore County Democrat, said he was swayed by recent medical studies that have found secondhand smoke to be more harmful in cars than in most other areas, sometimes reaching toxicity levels 10 times greater than those deemed acceptable by the Environmental Protection Agency.
“Obviously, everybody understood that this was bad for you but now there’s hard science behind it,” said Mr. Zirkin, Baltimore County Democrat. “These kids have zero choice, and they are being poisoned.”
Nonetheless, critics have raised questions about enforcing such a law, arguing that it could lead police officers to erroneously pull over drivers carrying a child car seat but not a child.
They also have predicted the law could pave the way for in- home smoking bans or other restrictions on parental behavior.
“There’s not one good reason to smoke in a car with your kid, but that’s not the question,” said Sen. James Brochin, Baltimore County Democrat. “The question is how much do we regulate the relationship between a parent and child?”
The Senate will resume discussion of its bill on Friday.