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Don’t expand Baltimore City Council’s budget authority | COMMENTARY

Inside Baltimore City Hall, there's a struggle over how best to set budget priorities. A proposed charter amendment would give the City Council far greater say in where money is spent, an idea resisted by Mayor Bernard C. "Jack" Young. File.
Inside Baltimore City Hall, there's a struggle over how best to set budget priorities. A proposed charter amendment would give the City Council far greater say in where money is spent, an idea resisted by Mayor Bernard C. "Jack" Young. File. (Amy Davis)

For all the things that Baltimore City government gets criticized for — whether it’s unsolved homicides, an inability to correctly bill for water use or its vulnerability to cyberattacks — there’s one thing that it has done reasonably well and that’s to not spend more than it collects in taxes. Don’t take our word for it. Take the Wall Street firms that set credit ratings. They judge the likelihood that investors who buy government bonds will get repaid in full. They aren’t swayed by politics or personalities; they deal in balance sheets, tax bases and the flinty-dry mechanics of municipal finance. Moody’s gives Baltimore an AA rating, meaning the general obligation bonds are “high quality” with “low risk,” the second highest rating available. Cities like Detroit and Chicago would love to be so well-regarded. It means they’d be paying much lower interest rates than they currently are forced to pay to borrow money.

There are any number of reasons for this but here’s a significant one: Baltimore City Council does not have the authority to add spending to the budget, only to reduce it. This isn’t especially convenient for City Council members. As often observed by the current members (and a whole lot of folks who held those same jobs before them), a lot of people living in Baltimore already assume the council can spend wherever and whenever members would like, but it simply isn’t true. It’s up to the mayor to initiate spending, the council’s power is to say “no” where appropriate. And saying “no,” alas, seldom comes naturally to elected officials who recognize voters love them when they allocate more (whether it’s on schools or fixing pot holes or upgrading rec centers) but not so much when they pull out the red pens. There are no ribbon-cutting ceremonies for deleted line-items.

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That’s why the current clamor to rewrite the charter is both perfectly understandable and exquisitely misguided. Who wouldn’t want to be able to decide where money is spent? But there are two ways to approach this labor. One is to follow the path set by state government where, like Baltimore, the legislative branch has historically had the power only to reduce spending, not to add to it, as putting money into state budgets is an authority vested only in the governor. Or you can follow the standard set by the federal government where Congress can spend pretty much where they please. Maryland has an AAA bonding rating, the highest possible. And how are things working out in Washington? The federal budget hasn’t been balanced in about two decades and runs a $1.88 trillion deficit that could soon grow worse in the budget year’s final months. That’s a debt so big it is almost beyond imagining. A nation with a gross domestic product that large would be the world’s ninth largest economy.

Council members might claim that comparison is unfair and that they’d still have the obligation to balance the city’s budget. But they’d be missing the larger picture. More people with the power to spend means the default choice will always be spending — and not necessarily the wisest spending. More like the you-scratch-my-back-and-I-scratch-yours variety as lawmakers try to get their pet projects from their individual districts advanced. It also ignores another reality: Council members already have the power to pressure mayors to spend more; it just requires a bit of negotiation. The council can, for example, threaten to cut a mayoral priority unless he or she agrees to fund a council priority. It happens all the time.

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What Baltimore has now is a strong mayoral approach to government, and when it works — when a competent and non-corrupt elected leader has a broadly-supported vision of the city’s future — it can work wonderfully. The voters can hold the mayor accountable for the city’s successes and its failures. When the wrong person has that job, however, it can be a disaster. The City Council needs to tread carefully here, and this may also apply to the City Council’s already-adopted charter amendment to make it easier to override a mayoral veto. Let’s not foist permanent structural changes on city government to make amends for the past failings of certain individuals. While Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young is almost certain to veto the proposed budget amendment, the City Council likely has the 12 votes to override, possibly even by the July 31 deadline to put it on the November ballot. Better to drop the whole messy business now and allow the next mayor and council to more reasonably debate how best to set spending priorities in the future.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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