Housing Complex

Fiscal Education

Fuss Budgets: Ed Lazere and the District's fiscal doves.

D.C. Councilmember Yvette Alexander was on her way into a Wilson Building meeting Monday afternoon when four members of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute waylaid her, brandishing fact sheets and legislative text. It was the day before the final budget vote. She granted them two minutes. Their concern: A last-minute amendment would boot parents off welfare for failing to attend parent-teacher conferences.

Standing to talk over a cubicle wall, Ed Lazere, the think tank’s bespectacled director, launched into the reasons why yanking a family’s public assistance wouldn’t get parents to show up at school. Alexander seemed skeptical. “They’re not going to lose their benefits,” she said sternly. “You know that and I know that.” With an auctioneer’s graceful patter, Lazere pivoted to the next item on his list. But Alexander circled back to the welfare issue, apparently having a change of heart.

“I will agree this should be a separate issue to have a hearing,” she said.

“That’s what we thought, too. That’s the main point,” Lazere quickly concurred, as if that had been his argument all along.

After 10 minutes with Alexander, Lazere and company went hunting for their next target: Ward 4’s Muriel Bowser, who was still in a hearing. No matter. Pushing through the chamber doors, Lazere caught the councilmember’s eye, motioning for her to come talk. They ran through the same issues, and Bowser also agreed there ought to be a hearing on the welfare amendment.

Then Jenny Reed, another member of the squad, got an email from the budget office with good news: The amendment had been pulled.

“Great, well, that’s nice,” said Lazere, smiling ever so slightly. “Yup.”

That kind of thing could have snuck by unnoticed in the next day’s vote. But not much gets past Lazere, who for the last decade has run a rapid-response wonk team during budget season to push for progressive taxation and protect funding for social services. As city revenue declined over the last several years, DCFPI has become even more central to lobbying efforts, doing polling, organizing coalitions, and providing talking points to the groups that run programs for the poor.

In any other political landscape, DCFPI’s activism might put them in a box on the left. There might be another outfit that challenged their numbers, or put out statistics for a fiscally conservative agenda. In the District, though, DCFPI is the only budget analysis game in town—to the eternal gratitude of social-service organizations, and the intense annoyance of the D.C. Council’s fiscal hawks. They bring the numbers that help set the tone for debates; even if they don’t always win every fight, DCFPI manages to start them on friendly ground. They clash with big developers and their allies on the council, opposing cuts to social services and tax abatements for construction alike.

“Somewhere along the line, they became an advocate for raising the personal income tax to the exclusion of virtually everything else,” says an exasperated Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, who chairs the Committee on Finance and Revenue. (DCFPI actually spends most of its time on other things.) “If we were to buy into their philosophy, we would be back to where we were in 1991, when we started having the highest taxes.”

At public meetings, Evans often holds up charts that tell a completely different story about the District’s budget than the ones Lazere holds up—emphasizing the decline in the city’s reserves rather than its fiscal health relative to the rest of the country, or the trend in dollars for social services rather than their overall share of the budget. In front of a crowd that doesn’t understand how the budget works, it’s usually possible to find numbers that support your point of view, and omit ones that don’t. In the end, it’s not about numbers, it’s about priorities—and the smaller-government side of things just doesn’t have much analysis to back it up.

If Evans has a problem with DCFPI’s advocacy, he only has himself to blame. Iris Lav, an official at the national Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, started the local D.C. branch of her State Fiscal Analysis Initiative in response to legislation Evans sponsored in 1999, which rolled back income tax rates to match Maryland’s and Virginia’s. The District’s Fair Budget Coalition, a group of social-service advocacy groups, ran a weak campaign against it under the banner “Keep My Share.”

“It was more of an emotional appeal than a sound fiscal argument,” says Patty Mullahy Fugere, director of the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless.

Lazere had arrived at the poverty-focused CBPP a few years out of college in the early 1990s, and pumped out reports finding growing inequality and shortages of affordable housing. Heading up the D.C. outfit was a natural fit. He was a presence in the Wilson Building from the start, but came upon his biggest fight over subsidizing the Nationals baseball stadium in 2004.

“We expected there to be a large organized effort to challenge the financing for the baseball stadium, and kept waiting for it to materialize, and it didn’t,” Lazere says. “We sort of jumped in.”

After marathon hearings and intense lobbying, DCFPI and its allies lost, and Nationals Park became one of the most heavily publicly financed sports venues in the country. Six years later, Lazere says he’d need to do more research to figure out whether the city had gotten its money’s worth. But he’s already put out studies preemptively making the case against public investment in a soccer stadium.

“It might be good for the culture of the city to have a soccer team and nice stadium,” Lazere says, “but not necessarily good for the city’s economy.”

Give DCFPI credit for taking the heat: They often trash pork for popular projects that might not need help, from tax breaks for businesses around a Metro station in Ward 8 to incentives for a Whole Foods near the Navy Yard, and this year helped pass a bill that will finally subject such giveaways to developers to more rigorous scrutiny. They’ll also go to the mat to tax popular services like yoga and gym memberships, a proposal that raised a storm of resistance during last year’s budget season and was ultimately killed.

“It made us realize, what is an effective advocacy strategy?” muses Elissa Silverman, a former Washington City Paper columnist who came to work for Lazere after a stint at The Washington Post. “It’s not getting 40 emails, it’s getting 4,000, basically having council staff say, ‘Stop sending us emails, we can’t get work done.’”

Other research groups are just that—research groups, which put their reports on a website and hope somebody will do the advocacy for them. The Brookings Institution, for example, will testify at hearings and offer policy advice when asked, but stays away from rallies and doesn’t join advocacy coalitions—mostly to preserve an aura of impartiality, even if their non-profit tax status doesn’t disallow it. Lazere, confident that his analysis stands up to scrutiny, has no such reservations.

DCFPI was useful to social-service advocates when they needed help maintaining spending on their programs during boom times. When tax hikes became part of the equation, they became essential.

For the 2012 budget, DCFPI knew it had to do something more than show up for rallies and bring poor people down to the Wilson Building to testify. That’s when they came up with doing a poll, by the respected (and expensive) pollster Hart Research Associates, to see what D.C. residents thought about paying more taxes. It was a risk: Lazere says they had no idea what such a poll would say, and might have buried the results if they weren’t favorable. But they were. When offered a binary choice, 70 percent of residents polled thought maintaining public services should be a higher priority than holding taxes down, and 85 percent supported a new tax bracket for residents making more than $200,000.

The poll energized advocates, who cited the statistics again and again in their testimony during budget hearings. Jews United for Justice, which has focused on mobilizing higher-income people, had 60 Ward 3 residents sit down with Councilmember Mary Cheh and ask her to raise their taxes, knowing that most of their neighbors agreed.

Ultimately, the poll failed to win the new income tax bracket, which now tops out at $40,000. But on most other matters, DCFPI and the other advocate groups were victorious: The council agreed to get rid of a tax exemption on out-of-state municipal bonds, force corporations to file income taxes in D.C. rather than shifting them out of state, and restore tens of millions in cuts to social services.

What really helps them make their case, though, is the lack of any similar group on the other side of the debate. Though research suggests that rich people won’t leave the District if their taxes go up, Evans worries that high taxes might keep individuals and businesses away in the future—but only has anecdotal evidence to support it. The Chamber of Commerce, for example, didn’t do much more than offer hearing testimony.

“They are knocking the socks off the Chamber right now,” said one council staffer who’s less sympathetic to DCFPI’s message. “The Chamber is supposed to be the one with money. They could pay for a poll. They could go out and ask, do you want higher taxes or more Lincoln Navigators…but it just never occurred to them. ”

For his part, Evans feels like he’s in a lonely fight.

“The business community’s woeful!” he yelped. “They’re not even on the table! They don’t even register! Board of Trade, Chamber, Federal City Council, I mean, they’re just nowhere to be heard. So they have not been a good counterbalance the DCFPI. We don’t hear from the business community, all we hear from Ed is raise taxes. So there really is no outside group that can do a thorough analysis of the budget and come to us with good ideas.”

What Evans means by “good ideas,” of course, are proposals that would reduce spending, which isn’t DCFPI’s mission, and which most politicians have failed to offer (one councilmember’s “waste” is another’s essential service). Lacking a critical mass of fiscal conservatives who actually care about local government, the District hasn’t yet birthed a DCFPI of the right. It’s a side that could use more intelligent defense.

Comments

  1. #1

    In general, I don't think the social services community is opposed to reducing spending; it's just that whenever those proposals come up, reducing spending automatically means reducing spending on povery programs. Really, does anyone believe that the Department of Human Services is the ONLY city agency with waste?

  2. #2

    DCFPI shoots itself in the foot on a regular basis these days. As soon as they walk into the room, you already know exactly what they want, meaning you can write them off almost instantly, or give them "2 minutes" like Alexander did.

    DCFPI is, in essence, a lobbyist group for the hundreds of social service agencies on the tit of DC government. Cuts to services means cuts to those organizations, which of course we can't do!

    They never, ever talk about reducing spending, only about more money, new programs, more money. Take TANF for example. Every other state in the country kicks people off after 5 years. Makes sense, right. "T" is for temporary after all. No way! says DCFPI these. These people need MORE money and just one or ten more years to rely on DC government for their every single need. Sheesh.

    Biggest budget in the history of the District this year! How can we keep this up? Oh yeah - we can keep raising taxes to pay for it. Thanks for nuthin, DCFPI!

  3. #3

    A liberal policy group advocating the usual liberal tax & spend policies.

    Yet the word "liberal" never appears in the story.

    And how exactly does DCFPI make money to meet its payroll?

  4. #4

    these long term welfare people need to show some pride, get to work and stop being a drain on society.

  5. Kesh Ladduwahetty
    #5

    Hats off to DCFPI for standing up for progressive priorities: investing in people and cutting pork for well-heeled developers. If we had followed their advice on the privately-owned baseball stadium, we'd have about $700M less in public debt and save $25M in debt servicing every year.

  6. #6

    If we'd follow DCFPI's advice, that additional $725M would be going to welfare programs.

    Has there ever been any DCFPI call to lower taxes of any sort?

  7. #7

    I am familiar with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the parent organization for the FPI.

    Here is the secret of their success.

    1. Hire very smart people who are passionate. Not Ph.D.'s necessarily, just people who have excelled in liberal arts or MPP programs. Don't worry if they don't have social skills or are unbearably self-righteous. That's part of the Center's culture anyway.

    2. Get the simplest facts from public sources. All the Center's data is transparent from nonpartisan sources like the CBO or Joint Committee on Taxation. While Heritage uses high-falutin', non-standard models that are easily debunked in the press, the Center is a go to source for reporters because all of its data inputs are easily sourced and come from generally accepted models.

    3. Hustle, hustle, hustle. It's amazing what these guys can crank out on a deadline. They beat the competition not only in quality but in speed. I assume they have layout and editing processes that would make the NYT jealous.

    So that's why no one beats them. It would be tough for the Board of Trade and other organizations of its ilk to find a shop of very smart people who work less for the money and more for the satisfaction of winning debates and helping those most in need.

  8. #8

    So all of these social services groups in the District on the government tit? I run one of those groups and we get zero money from the local government. We get a small amount of FEMA money to help folks pay their rent and utility bills. We did it on our own dime before we got FEMA money and that money has now been cut on the Congress. DCFPI does a great job protecting the poor and DC has a sizable problem with poverty, something others are happy to ignore.

  9. #9

    Let's just give it all away and keep raising taxes to pay for it. There has to be a better way......

  10. #10

    the revenue streams created/allocated to service the debt associated with the ballpark (sales tax within and around stadium, terraced fees on businesses, utility and telecommunications fees) have generated a surplus above the debt serice requirements every year and in recent years that surplus has been used to help cover the budget gap and save social services

  11. #11

    DCFPI doesn't lobby for service cuts but they do lobby for elimination of tax exemptions and tax giveaways like TIFs.CM Evans is fond of citing the Spy Museum as some sterling achievement yeah they got ten and a half million in TIF money. Does anyone really believe that once the Verizon Center and Gallery Place was done a profit making museum needed tax increment financing to build in that location?
    Evans pushed through a last minute amendment to delay the parking garage tax increase to October 1 even though parking lots in Mount Vernon Triangle have all increased their rates to account for an expected July 1 increase. He is a tool of the developers and is only concerned with reducing taxes but not with increasing revenue

  12. #12

    "He is a tool of the developers and is only concerned with reducing taxes but not with increasing revenue."

    Really @ Danmac?

    If Evans is pro-development, I say THANK GOD. Someone on the Council has to make deals with developers. No deals = no developers = no $$$ for roads, schools, and libraries. It's that simple!

    Evans has introduced several pieces of legislation in this Council period alone to increase revenues, so your comment holds no weight.

  13. #13

    DCFPI is successful and respected because they bring data, budget numbers and solutions to the table. Each and every time they are at the table. Their reports are easy to understand and even busy social service folks can take the time to read and use the information.

  14. #14

    Ed Lazere and his folks would have a lot more credibility if they didn't just automatically always ask for more tax increases and pretty routinely suggest that anyone that even suggests that welfare and social service reform is about thirty years overdue hates poor people and are morally bad people.

    Where are the suggestions from Lazere that the city and social service agencies better use the resources they have?

    The Mitch Snyder Center (as it's commonly known) sits on property two blocks from the Capitol, on stunningly inflated real estate. The property is worth in excess of $100 million.

    Why not sell that parcel or redevelop it as a twelve story office building, giving us a never ending revenue stream to finance social programs, and build the nicest biggest baddest homeless shelter ever, just on less expensive land?

    Ditto for a ton of public housing complexes in the city, where the real value is in the land, not the services being provided (in terms of dollars). Redeveloping those parcels would allow income to build three or four times as much public housing, in much better shape.

    But no. It's more important to "keep the homeless and public housing recipients visible in downtown and expensive neighborhoods" than it is to actually provide them services.

    And Lazere never admits that there's a ton of cheating and fraud in public housing.

    I'd have a lot more respect for his organization if they'd even mention, even in passing, that these issues exist.

  15. #15

    I'll follow up by saying the times in DC, they are changing.

    Used to be you couldn't dare criticize even the most stunningly counterproductive and poorly run social service facility or program without being called racist, elitist, etc.

    But now that some of these facilities and programs have proven to be abject failures or at a minimum stunningly wasteful, more and more citizens in DC are willing to demand we take a second look at many of them.

    And the most encouraging thing? It's not just the 'newcomer yuppies' that are demanding this. It's many working class older folks that have lived here for decades. They've seen these housing facilities churn out generation after generation of failure, and they are sick of it.

    We support a social safety net. Absolutely. But we just aren't willing to write a blank check for it anymore. And to quote others, when that safety net turns into a hammock, it's time to investigate and change tactics when necessary.

  16. #16

    *sigh* Why do people like to throw that "biggest budget ever . . ." statement out there like it means something. Budgets grow to meet expenses, some of which (like health care) increase at rates far higher than just typical inflation. That's just a fact; it means that this year's budget will be bigger than last year's, and social safety net spending is rarely the culprit for the biggest increases, but somehow always gets blamed because advocates are visible, having to fight cuts to those services EACH and EVERY budget season. In fighting those cuts, they have to make recommendations about where the money to make up for gaps will come from, hence the recommendations to increase taxes.

    Some of us don't think people are poor or disadvantaged because they choose to be. Some of us don't think we should live in an "every man for himself" society. And some of us back that up with support for budgets and policies that make sure we all have what we need. I'm a single, childless renter with an above average salary, so the government hits me HARD. But I'm not gunning for shelter funding to ease the hurt. That's just a little bit like picking on the weakest kid on the playground if you ask me.

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