Jonetta Rose Barras: The budget as campaign tool

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Local,DC,Jonetta Rose Barras,Phil Mendelson,D.C. Council,Mary Cheh,Jim Graham,Vincent Gray,Kenyan McDuffie,David Catania,Tommy Wells,Jack Evans

When Mayor Vincent C. Gray informally presented his proposed $12 billion 2014 budget to D.C. Council members last week, those gathered in his ceremonial office in the John A. Wilson Building might have thought him Pope Francis incarnate. Legislators offered platitudes and seemed ready to kiss his ring.

Even Ward 3's Mary Cheh, who, less than a year ago called for his resignation, was effusive. "With this budget plan, Mayor Gray has shown that improving the quality of life for all District residents, regardless of ZIP code, is the top priority," she offered in a public statement.

Only Councilman David Catania raised any concerns about the mayor's financial plan -- although the $6.3 billion in local spending is nearly 7 percent more than this year's budgeted expenditures. That increase includes hiring 23 new employees for the deputy for economic development; 30 in the attorney general's office; and 54 in consumer and regulatory affairs.

Interestingly, Gray has proposed eliminating 140 positions from the Metropolitan Police Department; 30 from the Department of Fire and Emergency Services; and 273 from D.C. Public Schools.

Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi warned in his March 28 transmittal letter of stagnant growth in District-based employment, rising vacancies in commercial office buildings and slowed tourism. "The impacts of this slowing appear likely to affect the tax base for at least the next few years."

Who would pay attention to such a prediction when the CFO has proposed increasing his empire from 888 employees to 927?

Besides, despite a federal investigation of his 2010 mayoral campaign, Gray is weighing a re-election bid. Sources told me Gray has been talking with key community leaders to gauge the potential for victory.

Smartly, Gray has used the budget to gain favor with some legislators, funding pet projects of those up for re-election -- Jim Graham, Kenyan McDuffie and Cheh, for example. Chairman Phil Mendelson has to run again in 2014. Muriel Bowser has announced her candidacy for mayor, and as many as three others -- Jack Evans, Tommy Wells and Catania -- also may jump in.

As the council begins its deliberations next week of the mayor's budget, there likely won't be much emphasis on frugality or fiscal prudence. Forget about cutting property taxes or reducing the rate for high wage earners.

Gray's plan pays homage to key constituent groups: nonprofits, labor unions, the construction industry and education choice promoters. All would receive a little something, something. Prime communities, particularly Wards 5, 7 and 8, that, with an assist from a shadow campaign, ushered Gray into the mayoral suite, have received special attention in his budget.

If, as Gandhi has predicted, the pace of growth slows, how will elected officials finance their voracious appetites? Borrow?

Gray's 2014 budget plan would spend more on repaying loans and interest than for increases to the rent supplement program and the 5.1 percent growth rate for Medicaid growth. In fact, repayment of loans and interests is the third-highest cost driver.

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Jonetta Rose Barras can be reached at jonetta@jonettarosebarras.com.

Jonetta Rose Barras' column appears on Tuesday and Friday. She can be reached at jonetta@jonettarosebarras.com.

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