**FILE** D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (Roy Lewis/The Washington Informer)
**FILE** D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (Roy Lewis/The Washington Informer)

With only a couple weeks before D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s scheduled release of the FY-2024 budget, revised revenue estimates by the Office of the Chief Financial Officer (OCFO) have called into question what she will — and won’t — prioritize in her proposal.  

OCFO’s Feb. 28 report revised the revenue estimates for the current fiscal year, increasing it by $128 million. That estimate however is followed by a projected loss of approximately $464 million for FY 2024-2026. 

Shortly after the release of the report, Bowser issued a statement espousing the need for prudent budgeting. 

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) and Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) also weighed in, decrying OCFO’s report and what they described as the conspicuous omission of the free-fare bus program, for which funds had already been certified.   

Allen, chair of the council’s Committee on Transportation and the Environment, has called for the free-fare bus program to come to fruition as planned. He and Mendelson have since inquired about the legal basis of OCFO’s revenue estimate with the council’s general counsel and budget director.

“This has a very real impact on residents, workers, and businesses, especially the majority of bus riders who make less than $50,000 – here, it could mean a delay in riders having the fare-free and improved bus service that would have started this summer,” Allen said. “Chairman Mendelson and I will work with our colleagues to make the tough choices necessary in the budget process to ensure safe streets and deliver on the District’s economic recovery. We need to do this, this year.”

In December, the D.C. Council approved the Fare-Free Bus Funding Emergency Act, which established fare-free Metrobus travel and expanded after-hours bus service in the District. The legislation also established a Fare-Free Bus Service Fund and Bus Service Enhancement Fund while directing excess revenue to both of them. 

D.C. Council members Janeese Lewis George (D-Ward 4), Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7) and Trayon White (D-Ward 8) were absent during the final vote. 

Reactions to the legislation ran the gamut, with many people expressing excitement about fare-free busing, and others, like a Bowser administration official speaking on background, lamenting how the program would affect District taxpayers. 

During this budget season, D.C. Council members, agencies and residents are vying for a piece of a $20 billion pie. Council member Gray recently introduced legislation that allows the mayor to fund local police recruitment and retention efforts. There have also been rumblings about reviving a movement around raising the minimum wage for summer youth employees who are under the age of 18. 

As it relates to education, officials continue to mull how the District will secure funds for the ratified Washington Teachers’ Union contract, along with the matching funds for public charter school teachers. Amid the battle over adequate school funding, Bowser administration officials say that unpredictable enrollment impedes their ability to adhere to council legislation mandating a minimum funding level for each District public school. 

Meanwhile, advocates in the teacher retention space are advancing their cause for flexible scheduling. 

During a recent gathering of educators, students and education officials, leaders of local organization EmpowerEd said they would request $10 million for the launch of a pilot program that allows teachers more latitude in their daily commitments and expands the range of on-campus enrichment activities for students. 

While Paul Kihn, deputy mayor for education, didn’t specify whether EmpowerEd’s budget request would be included in Bowser’s FY 2024 proposal, he said similar flexible scheduling programs have already been operating, in part because of the infusion of philanthropic dollars. 

Earlier this year, Bowser hosted budget forums at Jackson-Reed High School in Northwest and Eastern High School in Southeast. Residents who attended the forums designated education, public safety, housing, ANC support, out-of-school time programming, public libraries, and parks and recreation among their most pressing budgetary issues. 

In her budget proposal last year, Bowser avoided raising taxes and made investments in police recruitment, a new D.C. Jail annex, a Black homeownership fund, the Housing Production Trust Fund, the construction of MacArthur High School in Ward 3, and an indoor sports complex at RFK Stadium among other amenities across all eight wards. 

As the District attempts to move beyond COVID-19, the pivot back to normalcy has increased conversation about the new economic landscape, and what actions District officials should take, especially in light of OCFO’s revised revenue estimates. 

In her Tuesday night statement, Bowser suggested that District officials stick to the regularly scheduled programming.  

“With the ongoing impacts of telework and national political uncertainties, we face another significant test to our local economy,” Bowser said. “Given these challenges, it would be fiscally irresponsible to try to tax our way to sustainable, long-term growth. The District’s economy remains strong and rests on a solid financial footing. We must budget within our means and remain focused on the necessary investments to energize D.C.’s comeback.”

Sam P.K. Collins

Sam P.K. Collins has more than a decade of experience as a journalist, columnist and organizer. Sam, a millennial and former editor of WI Bridge, covers education, police brutality, politics, and other...

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