On Friday July 31, the District of Columbia Council acted on the Mayor’s proposed budget cuts. The Council had a set of very difficult choices. They had a short period of time to address an enormous problem which implicated not only budget, but policy. They did make important improvements on the Mayor’s proposal and saved key programs. However, in the end, the budget passed on Friday will make the District a colder and harsher place for children living in low-income families, for workers just out of a job, for persons living with a disability and for families who rely on public benefits to survive. The same economy that drained the District’s budget has had its worst effects on these members of our community, magnifying the impact of the Council’s action.
In significant areas, anti-poverty and other advocates made a difference:
- Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF): the Council stopped the Mayor’s proposal for enhanced family sanctions.
- Legal Services: the cut to legal services was reduced from $1.8 million to $700,000.
- Job Training: nearly $5 million was restored for job training.
- Jail Medical Services: the Council returned $4.85 million to ensure funding of the medical contract.
On other important issues, we were not successful: the TANF payment increase was eliminated, millions in housing vouchers lost, cut were made to mental health, human rights and disability programs and earmarks to social service agencies were eliminated.
Among the greatest disappointments was the Council’s action on revenue. The Council rejected the Mayor’s proposal to use the rainy-day fund out of concern that the pay-back rules imposed by Congress will force another crisis in 2011 and 2012. In the end, they did pass tax increases, but the taxes imposed will mostly burden moderate and low-income people. They increased sales, tobacco, gasoline taxes and deferred an increase in the personal exemption of the income tax. The proposed increases on high incomes were rejected.
I want to thank the many people in the legal community that came to the support of legal services providers, including Bar President Kim Keenan, the Board of Governors and past presidents of the D.C. Bar, the Litigation Section of the Bar, the leadership of the Bar Association of the District of Columbia and the hundreds of lawyers and friends who contacted the Council. Special thanks go to Katia Garrett and Claudia Withers at the D.C. Bar Foundation, Peter Edelman Chair of the Access to Justice Commission and Jess Rosenbaum who is in transition from staffing the Consortium of Legal Services Providers to Access to Justice Commission Executive Director. They took the laboring oar to save critical funding for access to justice.
Finally, a big thank you goes to Council Member Phil Mendelson who was the champion for civil legal services at the Council.