The 2 a.m Surprise: DC Residents Largely Left in Dark During Budget Deliberations
A little after 2 a.m. this morning, DC Council Chairman Vincent Gray released his proposal to close the District’s $188 million budget shortfall. Once again, as happened during the initial passage of the Fiscal Year 2011 budget this spring, the plan came out after most devoted Wilson Building watchers had headed to sleep. Even night owls had only several hours to review the revised package of cuts and restorations before the DC Council will convene to take one decisive vote on the plan later today.
The District budget is a statement of our community priorities in dollars and cents, yet there is a disturbing pattern of keeping the community in the dark about how those funds will be allocated until the final hour or two before the budget vote. Residents and businesses had little chance to voice their opinions about decisions made behind closed doors that have a tremendous impact on what services they will receive and how they will be delivered. It is a breach of good government practices and public trust.
Certainly Chairman Gray and the members of the Council are working under a tight deadline to revise the budget before year’s end, but that should not be an excuse to disregard basic principles of budget transparency. By meeting with Council members individually in his office, Chairman Gray did not give the public a chance to hear his priorities or the priorities of his colleagues. Unlike in the spring, Chairman Gray decided not to hold a televised meeting of the full Council to deliberate the budget. Outside of one marathon budget hearing, in which council members agreed to limit discussion and debate, the public has been shut out of this crucial decision-making process.
DC Fiscal Policy Institute has supported proposals to improve transparency in the budget process. One is to have a 48-hour “waiting period” after the final budget proposal is released to the public before the decisive Council vote. This would allow council members as well as the public a chance to understand the budget proposal and comment upon the package before it is voted upon.
DCFPI also supports efforts to make all council meetings in which a quorum is present open to the public. DC residents should be a partner in the budget process not an afterthought. A bill before the Council today would require open meetings across much of DC government – but the DC Council would be an exception, in that the Council would be allowed to live by its own rules. There is no reason for this exception. The bill should be amended so that the legislative branch of is held to the same standards of openness as the other branches of DC government.