Mar 21, 2024 - Politics
Town Talker

D.C.'s unelected financial officer pulls budget power move on mayor

Photo collage from left to right of Muriel Bowser, Glen Lee and Phil Mendelson

The man in the middle, Glen Lee, holds all the budget power over Mayor Bowser (left) and Council Chair Mendelson.

As if things weren't bad enough, a power clash inside the Wilson Building has widened D.C.'s budget gap to as much as $1.2 billion.

Why it matters: The new cuts could hit child care providers — just a microcosm of the pain to come across city government as federal pandemic money dries up and tax revenues dip.

State of play: Mayor Muriel Bowser's budget, which she was supposed to release on Wednesday, is being held up by the District's chief financial officer — an unelected, influential bureaucrat.

  • Glen Lee is asserting his power to require that the city cut an additional $250 million to replenish a reserve fund, which is basically a savings account for the government.

What I'm hearing: The word is that the mayor will do so by trimming a fund that subsidizes the pay of child care providers, which is meant to ensure they make about as much as public school teachers.

  • "We made all these promises for better pay and better lives to our early childhood education community," says La Shada Ham-Campbell, who founded Petit Scholars. "It feels unfair when we are always targeted first."

Between the lines: By standing his ground, Lee has driven council chair Phil Mendelson absolutely mad, because nowhere in D.C. law is it actually required to repay the reserve fund in one fell swoop.

  • But Lee argues he has "the authority and responsibility to evaluate all aspects of the budget." In other words: I am the law.

What they're saying: "Think of it," Mendelson said in a feisty statement. "Next year he could cancel other programs or maybe insist on firing agency directors because they mismanage their budgets."

Has Lee overstepped?

  • "Well, that's a question for another day," Bowser told reporters on Wednesday. She now expects her budget to come out next week.

The other side: Lee says Bowser very well knew she needed to replenish the fund.

  • In fact, Bowser officials indicated "in both private and public statements" as far back as February 1 that they would "replenish the fund," Lee wrote on March 11 to a top Bowser deputy.

💭 If you missed it, check out the recap of my interview with Mayor Bowser this week at our Axios What's Next Summit. Town Talker is a weekly column on local money and power. Send your tips to [email protected]

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