D.C. budget will reveal mayor's spending priorities Thursday

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Local,DC,Eric P. Newcomer,Taxes,Vincent Gray,David Catania,Jack Evans

For the uninitiated, the District's fiscal year 2014 budget will read like an impenetrable tome when it's released Thursday. But for District political watchers, the multibillion-dollar proposal will offer a line-by-line declaration of Mayor Vincent Gray's priorities.

Each council member knows what he or she will be looking for when the budget drops.

Tommy Wells wants what his staff calls long-overdue pay increases for police officers. Anita Bonds wants more funding for low-income housing initiatives. Jack Evans wants to keep libraries open on Sundays. David Catania is gearing up to scour the city's education budget, school by school.

The city has been running budget surpluses, announcing a $417 million surplus during the current fiscal year, which may put the mayor's office in a strong position to satisfy a diverse array of policy goals, each with its own associated costs.

"This should be an easier budget than most because there are funds available to work with," Evans said. "We're not in a situation where we have to cut anything. We're in a situation where we're going to have to decide how to spend."

However, Evans cautioned that budgeting when finances are flush has a downside: It can mean less scrutiny for departmental spending inefficiencies.

Calls for tax increases are unlikely -- and there may be a push to bring down some revenue.

Evans said that besides tax cuts, he hoped the city would roll back sales and income tax increases and put in place a 5 percent cap on the yearly property tax increase, half of the 10 percent cap in place right now.

Besides tax cuts, there are other ways the city could cut revenue. Wells, a potential mayoral candidate, wants to see the city lower speed camera fines, his chief of staff said.

Still, spending priorities will likely dominate the discussion in the weeks ahead.

The DC Fiscal Policy Institute wants to ensure those budget surpluses head toward the city's most vulnerable residents.

"D.C.'s revenues have really started to recover, but a lot of D.C. residents are still struggling," said Jenny Reed, a policy director at the D.C. think tank. "Unemployment remains really high among some groups of residents."

Her group would like to see a stopgap program for disabled D.C. residents get its funding restored after it saw millions of dollars cut for this fiscal year.

Mayor Vincent Gray has already promised $100 million for affordable housing in the District. Thursday's budget announcement should offer some specifics.

enewcomer@washingtonexaminer.com

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