City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young had a radical thought: that the city's legislative body might actually live up to its role as a co-equal branch of government and exercise some influence in how Baltimore will spend $2.3 billion in the next fiscal year. Not every suggestion he made for what spending should be cut, what new funds should be used and what additional spending should be authorized was good. But his main priority — freeing up additional funds for recreation centers, after school programs and other youth services — was certainly valid. It was supported by many members of the community and, for a moment, by a majority of his fellow council members.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake reacted how mayors pretty much always react when council presidents get ideas like that. She fought back full bore, both through the media and by applying pressure to individual council members. And the council did what it pretty much always does in that situation: It caved. Three council members who had initially voted for most of the cuts Mr. Young proposed suddenly reversed course on Thursday and opposed them. Mr. Young alleges that the mayor plied the flip-flopping council members by either promising goodies for their districts or threatening retribution. The mayor has denied that.
What is certain, though, is that the mayor made clear that she did not respect the right of the council to play a role in setting Baltimore's spending priorities. That left council members with a choice of cutting spending but not getting the new programs they wanted or allowing appropriations they didn't think were really necessary. They chose the latter. The attitude seems to be that the city should spend every penny it can get its hands on.
Councilman James Kraft, who initially not only voted for most of Mr. Young's cuts but also proposed significant new ones of his own, sided with the mayor Thursday. He said he saw no point in voting for the cuts Mr. Young proposed because the mayor had made clear that she would not increase funding for the youth services that the council president championed.
The Rawlings-Blake administration had not only said that she wouldn't make those appropriations but that she couldn't. Finance Director Andrew Kleine issued a memo this week saying that any funds freed up by the council's budget cutting would be considered "a property tax revenue surplus" that, under the city charter, cannot be used for supplemental appropriations.
That's true but somewhat misleading. After the council passes the budget, the mayor has the opportunity to sign or veto it. If the council had approved Mr. Young's cuts to the budget and Ms. Rawlings-Blake had signed it, indeed, the money could not have been used for additional youth services or anything else — other than providing a larger fiscal cushion for the city or allowing for a slight reduction in the property tax rate. If she had vetoed it, however, she would have had the opportunity to present a spending plan that reflected the council's priorities. Moreover, had she wanted to, she could have adjusted her proposal before it came to a final vote.
Ms. Rawlings-Blake should know how it works. In 2009, she led an effort to cut about $1 million from then-Mayor Sheila Dixon's budget in an effort to restore funding for recreation centers, city swimming pools and other youth-focused services. Then-Council President Rawlings-Blake secured preliminary approval for her cuts, just as Mr. Young did this year. Ms. Dixon then reached out to several council members and pledged to restore funding for summer camps at rec centers, child-care centers and other services — including Rawlings-Blake priorities like Teach for America and the Maryland Food Bank.
When a mayor wants to respond to the City Council's funding priorities, she can find a way. Indeed, she did restore a small amount of funding this year to after school programs through the Family League and Experience Corps. It's not that Ms. Rawlings-Blake couldn't have accommodated the council's other desires. She just didn't want to.
Still, that should not have stopped the council from enacting cuts to her spending proposal. The city charter lays out a budget process in which the council is required every year to hold extensive hearings on the mayor's spending plan, and it does, spending hours going over the details with agency heads and others. After concluding that process, they decide, virtually without exception, that every single penny the mayor puts in the budget needs to be spent exactly as he or she proposed. It is simply inconceivable that an honest, thorough, independent evaluation of multibillion-dollar budgets would, for a decade at a time, not turn up a single item of wasteful or questionable spending.
But that is the implication of the council's habit of passing mayoral budgets intact. Is it any wonder that the city continually finds that its spending is growing faster than its revenues?
The council's final vote on the budget is scheduled for Monday. Some members may propose new amendments, but it is unlikely, given Thursday's vote, that any of them will be adopted. That is a shame because it means that for at least the rest of the current mayor and council's term, the balance of power will remain lopsidedly in Ms. Rawlings-Blake's favor. Had the council called the mayor's bluff, she would have been forced to take its priorities seriously for the next four years. Now, however, she knows that it will cave under pressure. When it comes to deciding how tax dollars will be spent, we now effectively have a government of one. That's not good for the council, and it's not good for the city.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun