Gray submits budget proposal to D.C. Council

The D.C. Council is holding public hearings for the next month to review a budget proposal released by Mayor Vincent Gray last week.

The budget for fiscal year 2013 comes in at $11.3 billion and looks to close a $171.2 million budget shortfall through extended hours for alcohol sales and stricter enforcement of traffic regulations.

Gray said in testimony Tuesday to the D.C. Council that the budget’s theme is “seizing our future.”

“It is with that goal in mind that this budget makes many key investments to ensure all District residents are able to fully participate in the new economy that we are building for the District,” he said in council testimony.

The budget proposes an extension of hours for alcohol sales at bars and nightclubs by one hour, leaving them open until 3 a.m. on weekdays and 4 a.m. on weekends. Liquor stores could also open an hour earlier, at 7 a.m.

Last fiscal year’s budget also looked to alcohol for more cash flow, increasing the tax on liquor from 9 to 10 percent and extending sale hours until midnight Mondays through Saturdays. It also made it legal for bars and eateries to open their taps Sundays at 8 a.m. – two hours earlier than before.

During the next two presidential inaugurations, the budget calls for bars to get a green light to stay open until 4 a.m.

D.C.’s streetcar project that will span all eight wards would see an additional $2.8 million from Gray’s budget to push the launch of the line down H Street and Benning Road.

Plans for the 37-mile network began in 1997 with a public transit strategy study by the District Department of Transportation that pointed to streetcars as a way to alleviate congestion in public transportation options.

District taxis would also see upgrades under Gray’s proposed budget, including offering customers the ability to pay with credit cards and give all cabs a uniform color.

The budget slashes $23 million from the D.C. HealthCare Alliance program, which aids individuals ineligible for Medicaid.

DC Fiscal Policy Institute budget analyst Elissa Silverman said the mayor’s budget reflects an even-handed approach that weighs revenue and cuts, adding that the council would have difficulty making overarching changes to the proposal, because it must maintain a balanced budget.

“Expenditures have to equal revenue, so we often see a lot of small changes,” she said. “It’s hard to make really big changes because they would have to find the revenue to replace it.”

The budget will face public hearings through late April before undergoing revisions in May during the council’s mark-up phase. The D.C. Council will take a final vote on the bill June 5, passing it along to Congress for approval.

Ward 2 D.C. Council member Jack Evans said he has concerns with parts of the budget proposal, including the plan to raise $24.8 million from increased speeding and red light ticket cameras.

“I disagree philosophically with this nickel-and-dime approach to balancing the budget,” Evans, who chairs the council’s finance committee, said.

Gray also included a “revised revenue priority list,” if the city were to collect more revenue than projected, including extra money for homeless services and restoration of health care funds that were cut in the proposal.

“Mayor Gray is hoping there will be sort of a windfall of dollars that will come over the years that will help him fund more programs,” Silverman said. “I’d say this budget bets on good times ahead.”

Priya Anand contributed to this report.

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