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.