Schools, Social Safety Net, Buses and Baby Bonds See Funding Bump in Council Budget Action
This time of year in DC, you will hear many references to “the budget.” In one sense, this singular use of the term “budget” is accurate—the mayor submits a budget proposal to the Council, but it is the Council’s budget, passed via legislation, that is ultimately the budget of the District of Columbia.
However, the Council’s budget is not itself a single document. It is composed of several pieces of legislation, each of which has its own specific job and each of which follows its own specific path. The Local Budget Act includes the dollars and cents of the budget, and receives two votes two weeks apart. The Budget Support Act incorporates all the legislative changes needed to implement the Local Budget Act’s monetary changes. It too requires two votes, but these votes are weeks further apart time-wise due to the legislative complexity of the measure and the absence of a Congressionally-imposed deadline for its passage. Finally, there is the bill which includes the federal portion of the District’s budget, plus an emergency supplemental bill that addresses unanticipated mid-year surpluses or shortfalls in the budget year which is currently underway. Each of these two bills gets a single vote.
At its most recent Legislative Meeting, the Council took two of the votes mentioned above—the initial votes on both the Local Budget Act and the Budget Support Act. And the differences between the proposal submitted by the mayor this year and the budget approved by the Council have rarely if ever been as stark.
Social Safety Net
As submitted by the mayor, there were profound budget gaps in social safety net services. The budget as proposed would have cut funding by nearly $35 million from a $43 million eviction prevention program known as the Emergency Rental Assistance Program. As is, the program had run out of funds six months into the 12-month fiscal year. The Council budget put back $35 million, level-funding the program at its current year levels.
In the civil justice system, the people are represented by two separate but unequal groups: most businesses and wealthier individuals are represented by attorneys, while lower-income individuals have no choice but to represent themselves. The Access to Justice program seeks to address this inequity, but the mayor’s budget proposal eliminated $18.6 million from the present year’s $31.6 million funding level. The Council budget returns funding to the current $31.6 million level for the upcoming year. This will fund civil legal representation in eviction, voucher termination, debt, consumer protection, Medicaid, and other cases—resulting in both emotional justice and significant financial savings to participants.
The Council restored $8.8 million for the implementation of the previously legislated and funded “Baby Bonds” program, which will provide all eligible children born in DC after October 1, 2021 with $1000/year for approved wealth-building uses once that child reaches age 18. The goal of this program is to facilitate the establishment and growth of intergenerational wealth among those socioeconomic groups that have been at a disadvantage on this basis.
In other social safety net funding bumps provided by the Council:
- Permanent Supportive Housing vouchers were provided for 150 individuals and 80 for families (the mayor’s proposal provided zero of each)
- The Council restored $7.5 million in domestic violence funds cut by the mayor, and added an additional $3 million. Funds cover services including housing, legal, transportation, mental health, and other costs.
A critical victory for students, parents, administrators, and teachers was the “Schools First in Budgeting” legislation the Council passed this past December, which required level funding year-over-year for DC Public schools, in an effort to provide them with stability and predictability. Though this law is fully in effect, the mayor ignored and disobeyed its provisions in the budget proposal she submitted, exposing schools once again to the annual funding roller coaster which has kept them off-balance in past years. The Council redistributed $28.9 million in funds to ensure the terms of the “Schools First” legislation were honored, restoring the desired stability previously written into binding District law by the Council.
Additional investments in schools and education include:
- $6.7 million to enhance or correct at-risk appropriations at public and public charter schools
- $3.9 million for a flexible school day pilot program
- $1.2 million for the University of the District of Columbia to create a Master of Social Work program in order to create a local pipeline (and ease a national shortage) of behavioral health specialists
- $3.5 million to implement the Healthy Schools Act, allowing for healthy school meals to be served and healthy food education to be integrated into the curriculum
Although resistance from Metro unfortunately led to a postponement of implementation of the current law requiring and funding free bus service in the District, the Council was able to provide $12 million to fund 24-hour bus service on our 13 most used bus routes. These routes serve all eight wards, and the new service could begin as early as December 2023. An additional $16.5 million went to restore the three Circulator routes eliminated by the mayor: Woodley-McPherson, Eastern Market-L’Enfant, and Rosslyn-Dupont.
Additionally, the Council allocated $5 million to redesign the much-discussed nine blocks of downtown K Street to ensure that it is responsive to all potential users of the space.
In additional elements of the budget, the Council:
- Provided funding for the implementation of the domestic workers employment rights law
- Provided funding for the implementation of street vending reform
- Restored crime scene science and investigation responsibilities to the Department of Forensic Sciences, rather than the Metropolitan Police Department
- Restored funding to the Criminal Code Reform Commission, which much now continue its work since Congress overrode the Council’s criminal code reform bill earlier this year
- Accelerated the planning and design of a new correctional facility for the District
On May 30, the Council will take its second vote on the Local Budget Act, as well as its single votes on both the bill encompassing the federal portion of our budget, as well as the emergency supplemental bill that includes any course corrections to the budget for the fiscal year that is currently underway. Finally, at either our June 6 or June 20 Legislative Meeting, the Council expects to hold its second vote on the Budget Support Act. Our likely final Legislative Meeting prior to the Council’s recess will be held on July 11.