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Mayor has too much authority over Baltimore’s budget | COMMENTARY

There is a push by some to give the Baltimore City Council more authority over the city budget.
There is a push by some to give the Baltimore City Council more authority over the city budget. (Amy Davis)

As debate about budget priorities takes place around the country, Baltimore City’s own budget went before the City Council recently for review.

Unlike many jurisdictions, our “strong mayor” system of budget setting does not allow for the budget to be amended or funding shifted, it only allows for cuts. Some have made the case for Baltimore’s current strong mayor system of setting budgets. While some of these concerns merit consideration, others misrepresent the amendment and discount the benefits a revised budgeting process will bring to Baltimore. The potential benefits of the new budgeting process include a budget that more closely aligns with residents’ priorities, combats clientelism and corruption, and eliminates ineffective programs.

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Baltimore’s governance system is broken, but the beauty of democracy is that it is an iterative process, and if something doesn’t work we can fix it. By many measures Baltimore’s budget priorities over the past decade have been misguided and the strong mayor system simply papered over troubles with little debate and input from City Council members. Some have reduced the budget process to a binary choice: the federal system, which faces perennial debt and continuing resolutions, or the Maryland state system, which follows a similar strong executive budget process. This is a false choice.

The charter amendment as written does not give City Council members a blank check; the budget must be balanced. And unlike the U.S. government, Baltimore cannot rely on the Federal Reserve for help. What this amendment does propose is to bring more attention to the city’s budget and what we are spending money on.

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Baltimore shouldn’t have to rely on a “good” mayor to have a budget reflect our city’s priorities. Rather a mayor under the proposed reform would need to be a humble consensus builder and make transparent compromises on competing budget priorities. Through open discussion and debate, the budget will begin to reflect the priorities of residents rather than any one elected official. The charter amendment allows for a process where the City Council can move money, but not increase the overall budget, allowing for a budget document that resembles the moral priorities of Baltimore residents. There are many needs in the city and the current budgeting process has left too many of those needs unaddressed.

In light of recent ethical lapses in multiple mayoral administrations, it would benefit residents to have more eyes, and politicians with competing priorities reviewing the budget. Under the revised charter everyone on the council will have skin in the game, reducing clientelism in the city. It will be more difficult for narrow interests to secure a line item or program with the City Council looking over the mayor’s shoulder. Politicians compete in elections and the incentive to make a name for themselves by finding a scandal will limit budget phantoms and serve as a check on wasteful spending. While the process may be lengthier and more boisterous than the current top-down method of budgeting, a close review by the City Council may put the city on a path to build trust among residents, the council and the mayor.

Fearmongering about increased debt service costs based on revisions to the charter is misplaced. There are many protections put in place to benefit city bondholders. Despite the pandemic and induced economic downturn, Baltimore City’s sources of revenue are far more diverse than the surrounding counties. Further, the recent pension reforms implemented by former Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake have put Baltimore in a fairly sound fiscal position vis-à-vis peer cities.

It is clear the current budgeting system is not working for the residents of Baltimore. It is time to try something new. After all, the benefit of our democracy is that if this fix doesn’t work we can keep trying something else until we make it better.

Eric K. Hontz (eric.hontz@gmail.com) is deputy regional director of Europe and Eurasia at the Center for International Private Enterprise.

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