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Written by Monica Bell

Jun 06

2011

First Budget Vote Held on May 24; Safety Net Programs Cut, but not Eliminated

Monica Bell, Liman Fellow

The D.C. Council held its first vote on the Fiscal Year 2012 budget on May 24, 2011. (For more on the process, see the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute’s FY 2012 Budget Toolkit.) The Council’s budget makes several changes to the Mayor’s proposal that affect both revenue-raising measures and expenditures on safety net programs. 

Perhaps the most notable change in revenue enhancement measures was the Council’s decision to abandon Mayor Gray’s proposed 0.4% income tax increase on individuals earning more than $200,000 per year. The Council decided instead to adopt a measure that Legal Aid has endorsed on multiple occasions: eliminating DC’s exemption on interest collected from out-of-state bonds. At the beginning of this budget season, only D.C. and Indiana exempted interest earned on out-of-state municipal bonds from taxation.  The Indiana Legislature voted to end their exemption in early May, and the D.C. Council followed suit on May 24.  Although this measure raises less revenue than the proposed income tax, it (along with other changes to the revenue distribution scheme explained here) allowed the Council to give some support back to the hardest-hit safety net programs. 

TANF:  The Council voted to restore $4.9 million to TANF, which would avoid additional time-limited cuts for FY 2012. The Budget Support Act, the subject of the second vote on June 14, still includes benefits cut to begin in FY 2013.

Homeless Services:  The Council voted to restore roughly $17 million to the budget for Homeless Services. 

Interim Disability Assistance (IDA): The Council added $1.5 million to preserve IDA. The District is currently reimbursed about 40% of the money it spends on IDA — a high percentage relative to other states, but an amount that has come under the Mayor’s attack.  Under the May 24 budget, the Department of Human Services must review the IDA program to see if there are ways to increase IDA’s reimbursement rate. Although the Council has allocated some money to IDA, it is only enough to serve about 500 residents – less than one-half of the current IDA recipients. The Council voted to add additional funding to IDA if revenues in DC increase above the currently projected amount. 

Even with these restorations, a significant amount of the District’s budget cuts still fall on the most vulnerable communities. In addition, there are lingering indicators – such as the review of IDA and the continued enthusiasm for a time limited approach to the broken TANF program – that safety-net advocacy will remain vitally important during the next budget cycle. Nonetheless, the Council should be commended for its efforts to preserve and improve the safety net, and for its commitment to strengthen some safety net programs with additional revenues. If the Council were to restore the modest income tax increase and include the elimination of the bond exemption, the social safety net would be in far better shape. 

The final budget vote, which will solidify legislative changes through the District’s Budget Support Act, will be held on Tuesday, June 14.  At this point, the amount of money available in the budget is finalized, but the allocations of funds can still change. Thus, we urge you to reach out to your Council Members and encourage them to consider restoring the modest tax increase and do all they can to maintain the restorations to safety net services that are critically important to our client community.

For more information about the first budget vote, see:

D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute – The DC Budget Vote: So What Happened?

Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless – Shelter System Crisis – Averted!

DCist – 2012 Budget Passes Council on First Vote

Washington Post – Upper-income residents in D.C. won’t face higher tax rate


Related Making Justice Real  blog posts:

Legal Aid Expresses Profound Concern about Disproportionate Budget Cuts

TANF Time Limit Would Put Survivors of Domestic Violence at Risk

Proposed Change to D.C. Healthcare Alliance Would Erect High Barriers to Health Coverage

D.C. Budget Would Suspend Interim Disability Assistance

Mayor Gray’s Proposed Budget Cuts Would Hit Legal Aid Clients Hard

Join Legal Aid and Other Organizations in Urging the Mayor to “Invest in DC”

Apr 15

2011

Mayor Gray’s Proposed Budget Cuts Would Hit Legal Aid Clients Hard

Monica Bell, Liman Fellow

Mayor Gray released his proposed Fiscal Year 2012 budget on
April 1.  The budget takes a more balanced approach overall than recent budgets by calling for several means of revenue enhancement, including raising the marginal tax rate on families with taxable income of over $200,000 per year by 0.4%, establishing combined reporting for multistate corporations, increasing the parking tax from 12% to 18% to make it more similar to other large cities’ parking taxes, and increasing the alcohol tax, among others.   However, 67.2% — 2 of every 3 dollars – of the cuts proposed by the Mayor are directed toward the already ailing health, housing, and human services budgets, even though the budgets for those services only make up about one-fifth of the District’s current expenditures. The proposed budget would weaken several programs, including Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Interim Disability Assistance (IDA), Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP), the DC Healthcare Alliance, Housing Vouchers, and Homeless Services, which keep many of our clients here at Legal Aid from suffering the very worst consequences of poverty.

TANF:  The proposal would, over the next three fiscal years, cut cash assistance to almost 7,000 families who have been on the program longer than 60 months.  As we have explained in previous posts, the FY 2011 budget already cut benefits to this same group, many of whom have the most barriers to working. To illustrate, a family of three who was receiving $428 per month (the maximum benefit) before April 1, 2011 is now receiving $342 per month; this amount would drop to $257 per month beginning October 1, 2011, to $150 per month by October 1, 2012, and would be eliminated completely by October 1, 2013.  The Mayor believes that this cut would help end the alleged “cycle of poverty” and incentivize people to work.  There are many problems with his approach.  First, research overwhelmingly indicates that while time limits certainly lower welfare rolls, they are not an effective employment tool.  Second, the current D.C. TANF program fails at several critical aspects of a successful welfare-to-work program, including assessment, connection with supportive services, job training, and job location.  Time limits in places with strong welfare-to-work programs are problematic enough; time limits in a jurisdiction with a deficient welfare-to-work program are both unproductive and cruel.  

IDA:  The funding for IDA, which offers benefits to individuals with disabilities while their applications for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) are pending, would be cut by up to 75% under the Mayor’s proposal.  The program – which gives recipients just $247 per month — currently serves 1500 District residents and has a waiting list of over 600 people; the program caseload would be cut to about 600 by the end of FY 2012 if this massive budget cut is approved.  The budget would essentially eliminate IDA over time. 

DC Healthcare Alliance:  The proposal would cut funding for the Alliance by $11.7 million. The CFO anticipates that the Alliance would save this money through a measure in the Budget Support Act that would increase the frequency that people on the Alliance must recertify their eligibility.  Currently, Alliance members must recertify once per year.  The proposed Act would require face-to-face recertification every six months. This change would likely lead to inaccurate disqualification of District residents who are eligible for Alliance benefits. 

ERAP:  The proposed budget would slash funding for ERAP by $5 million, to just $2.7 million for FY 12.  In contrast, the FY 2009 ERAP budget was $8 million.  This cut will likely increase homelessness and the problems that tend to accompany it, such as truancy and crime. ERAP is often the last resort for families who are at risk of being evicted from their housing, and this massive cut will mean that fewer families will be able to remain in housing. 

Homeless Services:  Even as the District’s largest shelter has had to start turning away homeless families due to lack of funding, and even as the problem of homelessness is likely to increase because of cuts to TANF, IDA, and ERAP, the Mayor is proposing that the budget for services to the homeless population be decreased.  The proposed budget would cut the already cash-strapped homeless services budget by approximately $11 million. 

In addition to the above-mentioned cuts, Legal Aid is also concerned about cuts and shifts in budget priorities with respect to housing vouchers, affordable housing development, and mental health services for children in foster care, among others. 

As a member of the Invest in DC coalition, Legal Aid is pleased that the Mayor proposed at least a small set of revenue enhancements.  We recognize that this is a tough budget season in which difficult choices must be made.  However, the proposed budget would undermine – and, in some cases, destroy – programs that ensure the economic security of the most vulnerable District families.  That is not an acceptable choice.  We call on Mayor Gray and the Council to think more creatively about how to protect the safety net, such as by adopting the Invest in DC coalition’s recommendation to end DC’s tax exemption for interest paid on out-of-state bonds and by subjecting more nonessential services like pet grooming and health club membership to the sales tax. 

The Council is currently holding hearings regarding each agency’s budget; the hearings started on April 7 and will continue through May 6.  The hearing before the Committee of the Whole is on May 7.  The final vote for the Budget Request Act will take place on May 24, and the final vote on the Budget Support Act is on June 7.  Please testify at hearings and reach out to Council members in this timeframe to let them know that you support the preservation of critical safety net programs. 

For more information on the District’s FY 2012 budget, see:

Mar 21

2011

Join Legal Aid and Other Organizations in Urging the Mayor to “Invest in DC”

Monica Bell, Liman Fellow

As Mayor Gray prepares to present his FY 2012 budget on April 1, advocates for the low-income community are again concerned that the safety net, already weakened, will be decimated by further cuts this year.  The District is projected to face a shortfall of about $322 million.  If past behavior is any indication of the future, advocates have reason to be concerned.  In recent years, the District’s primary strategy for dealing with the budget shortfall has been cutting millions of dollars for critically important services to the District’s most vulnerable.  TANF, Interim Disability Assistance, homeless services, affordable housing, childcare services, mental health services, adult education, domestic violence resources, and others have all been subjected to the axe.  Candidate Gray recognized this, noting that “We have not only cut to the bone, we are down to the bone marrow.”  Even so, an additional $30 million was cut from the FY 2011 budget for services to low-income District residents, those who most acutely feel the impact of program cuts.

Legal Aid has joined 60 other organizations in signing on to the “Invest in DC” initiative, led by Save Our Safety Net, the Fair Budget Coalition, the Metro Washington Council of the AFL-CIO, and DC Jobs with Justice. We urge the Mayor to take a balanced approach to dealing with the budget shortfall by making reasonable efforts to increase the District’s revenue.  The “Invest in DC” approach would raise $150 million in progressive revenue by:

(1)   Increasing the income tax rate on the wealthiest, which currently places the same rate on a family making $1 million per year the same as a family earning $40,000 per year;

(2)   Ending the District’s tax exemption for interest paid on out-of-state bonds, which would bring DC’s practices in line with those of 49 out of 50 states; and

(3)   Increasing taxes on parking, a burden that would fall substantially on commuters and tourists.

If we are to truly be “One City,” we must ensure that the burden of the budget crisis does not fall primarily on certain wards and certain communities, but rather is shared across the District.

We need your help to carry this message to Mayor Gray.  There are two major ways you can participate this week:

(1) Call the Mayor on Tuesday, March 22 to challenge him to raise $150 million in progressive revenue and invest it in DC. Call the Mayor’s Community Affairs Office at (202) 442-8150.  You can also email the Mayor at vincent.gray@dc.gov. Contact mbell@legalaiddc.org to get a sample email or phone script for the March 22 calls.

(2) Participate in Save Our Safety Net’s “Lunch with the Mayor Initiative” this week. Join Save Our Safety Net and allies at the Wilson Building, 1350 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, to demand a meeting with Mayor Gray to discuss the upcoming budget every day this week at 1 PM.  Remember to bring your ID and a brown bag lunch (except for Friday, March 25). RSVP to sos.adf@gmail.com.

Feb 22

2011

New Legislation Seeks to Toughen First Source Law

Monica Bell, Liman Fellow

In an earlier blog post, Legal Aid noted that the District’s failure to monitor compliance with the First Source Employment Agreement (a District law passed in 1984 which requires that 51% of the employees hired for City-funded development projects be District residents and that the jobs pay a living wage) has cost District residents jobs at a time when 1 in 10 District residents, and about 30% of Ward 8 residents, are unemployed. On January 18, 2011, D.C. Council Chair Kwame Brown, along with Councilmembers Michael Brown (At-Large) and Harry Thomas, Jr. (Ward 5), introduced legislation that aims to remedy this problem.

B19-0050, the “District of Columbia Workforce Intermediary Establishment and Reform of First Source and Living Wage Act of 2011,” proposes to strengthen the First Source and Living Wage laws by, among other things:

  • Mandating that 20% of non-construction hours worked on government-assisted projects be performed by District residents;
  • Requiring that each government-assisted construction project totaling $300,000 or more allocate certain numbers of hours to District residents;
  • Requiring documentation of best efforts to comply with the First Source law before receiving a waiver from it; and
  • Stiffening the penalty for willful noncompliance, raising the potential fine from 5% to 10% of direct and indirect contract labor costs.

Read the full text of the proposed legislation here. While at first glance, the bill seems positive, we note that the law will only be effective if the District dramatically improves its monitoring of compliance with the First Source and Living Wage laws. Developing a more effective enforcement mechanism will be essential if the District plans to rely on First Source to stem its high and unequally distributed unemployment rate.

To learn more about efforts to reform First Source, see the following resources:

Feb 15

2011

Bad Direction for TANF in the District of Columbia

Monica Bell, Liman Fellow

Yaida Ford, Staff Attorney

When the D.C. Council’s 2010 session drew to a close on December 21, 2010, it sent a mixed but mostly negative message about its approach to the safety net for the District’s most impoverished families. The Council closed the session by passing the Fiscal Year 2011 Supplemental Budget Support Act of 2010 and voting on several pieces of legislation, including the TANF Educational Opportunities and Accountability Act.

The Supplemental Budget Support Act instituted significant changes in TANF policy that will take place throughout 2011. For the first time, the District effectively imposed a time limit on TANF recipients, cutting the benefits of families who have been on TANF for more than 60 months by 20 percent. For affected families of three, the maximum benefit will drop from $428 per month – already just 28% of the federal poverty line – to $342 per month. Legal Aid has testified in the past about the wrongheadedness of this approach, particularly in light of the District’s failure to adequately assess, train, and connect TANF recipients to critically important services. This change will go into effect on April 1, 2011, and Legal Aid is working to inform our clients who may be affected by this change.

The Council also voted to permit the Department of Human Services to implement a three-tiered sanctions policy that would eventually cut an entire family’s TANF benefit if the adult does not comply with TANF work requirements (also known as “full-family sanctions.”) This represents a dramatic change from the current sanctions policy which removes only the adult from the TANF benefit for non-compliance; now children will pay a steep price for their parents’ actions. Considering that an astounding 1 in 3 District children currently rely on TANF for their most basic needs, many District children will face serious deprivation as a result of this Council action. This is a shame, especially considering that ample research has found that neither time limits nor sanctions actually get more TANF recipients into the workplace.

A more hopeful development was the Council’s passage of the TANF Educational Opportunities and Accountability Act. This bill mandates that DHS make certain changes to their work program so that TANF parents who want to pursue education and job training can receive those services and become employable. The law amends the old TANF statute to require mandatory assessments for all TANF parents when they apply for TANF and it defines the specific work activities that allow TANF parents to pursue education and job training. Finally, the law includes outcome performance measures for the DHS so that the agency can be held accountable for properly assessing TANF parents and referring them to support programs in which mysteriously low numbers of TANF parents are enrolled. The changes authorized in this bill have been proven much more effective in employing TANF recipients in other jurisdictions.

Yet, even as the Council acknowledged the TANF system’s brokenness, it nonetheless instituted policies that will punish poverty-stricken families and children for the failures of the current system. The Council should have waited for DHS to implement needed reforms before adopting punitive measures such as time limits and full-family sanctions. Time limits will be imposed retroactively beginning April 1, 2011 and the new sanctions policy will go into effect on October 1, 2011. (In contrast, the reforms required by the TANF Educational Opportunities and Accountability Act have no exact date for implementation. )

In these economic times, advocates’ work to protect TANF for families that need it is more critical than ever. Because the District faces even more budgetary challenges in the FY 2012, the Council may be tempted to target safety net programs like TANF again. We urge the Council to move in a more positive direction this legislative session by approaching family economic security programs with an eye toward research-based effectiveness and improvement of the lives of the most vulnerable.

Nov 09

2010

Legal Aid Endorses “Better Choices” and Urges a Balanced Approach to the Budget Crisis

Monica Bell, Liman Fellow

In recent years, the District has cut millions of dollars from its budget for critical services to the low-income community, such as homeless services, affordable housing, childcare services, adult education, mental health services, domestic violence resources, public libraries, and civil legal assistance. The District faces a Fiscal Year 2011 budget shortfall of at least $175 million, which potentially places the social safety net, and the people it serves, at even greater risk.

Legal Aid has joined over sixty other District organizations to endorse “Better Choices,” an initiative led by the Fair Budget Coalition, SOS (Save Our Safety Net), the Metro Labor Council, and Jobs with Justice to urge the District government to take a balanced approach to coping with the budget crisis.  Increasing revenue through progressive tax policy is an essential component of such an approach.  Doing so will ensure that the burden of the budget crisis no longer falls disproportionately on the District’s low-income residents, but rather, is shared across the economic spectrum.

Oct 24

2010

Legal Aid and Bread for the City Testify in Opposition to the Child Support Enforcement and License Suspension Amendment Act of 2010

Monica Bell, Arthur Liman Public Interest Fellow

The D.C. Council is considering a bill that would drastically change the District’s standards for suspending the driver’s licenses and other licenses and registrations of parents who fail to pay child support. 

Bill 18-925, the “Child Support Enforcement and License Suspension Amendment Act of 2010,”   would allow the District to suspend any government-issued license or registration of a non-custodial parent who has been ordered to pay child support, regardless of whether that parent has any income.  The legislation would give the District’s child support enforcement agency broad discretion to penalize any child support obligor who it decides is “able to work,” regardless of that person’s employment status, educational background, skill level, or financial circumstances.

Legal Aid, with Bread for the City, offered oral and written testimony in opposition to the bill at a public hearing before the Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary on October 6, 2010.  Although we share the Council’s underlying concerns and strongly support their efforts to improve the collection of child support, we believe that the license suspension bill is an excessively punitive, blunt instrument that would ultimately fall short of its aspirations.  Bill-18-925, as written, would produce several unintended negative consequences for District families.  The bill would: 

  • Strip unemployed non-custodial parents of the very tools they need to secure a job and support their children during these challenging economic times – their driver’s licenses and vehicle registrations;
  • Give the Child Support Services Division (CSSD) virtually unchecked authority to determine who is “able to work”;
  • Eliminate procedural safeguards for non-custodial parents who have been threatened with license suspension; and
  • Fail to provide non-custodial parents with meaningful access to a forum to appeal these sanctions.

Legal Aid and Bread for the City are particularly concerned about the timing of this bill.  One in ten District residents is unemployed, and nearly 30% of the residents of Ward 8 are unable to find a job.  The brunt of recession-related job loss in the District has fallen on low-wage workers.  This bill would unfairly penalize non-custodial parents who, through no fault of their own, have lost their income but who, according to CSSD, are “able to work.”

In our testimony, Legal Aid and Bread for the City urged the Council to take more time to confer with child support agency officials, child support advocates, and the public before enacting this sweeping and punitive bill.