Thursday, May 17, 2012

Why they voted "yes" on the Mayor's budget on First Reading.

And, why it is an up hill battle to stop a tax increase.

Several people who are adamantly against a property tax increase have expressed disappointment that so few Council Members voted "no" on first reading on the Mayor's budget ordinance.  A "yes" vote on first reading was not a vote for the budget. Let me explain:

All bills in the Council have to be voted on, on three separate "readings." One should realized that voting for a bill on first reading does not imply the council member casting the vote supports the bill. A vote on first reading is just a vote to allow the bill to be heard. Consideration of a bill in committee does not take place until after first reading, prior to second reading. If there is any Council discussion or amendments that takes place on the floor of the Council that takes place on  second readings.

Regarding the budget ordinance, the Charter is real specific about what must happen. Here are the relevant portions of the charter related to the budget:
Sec. 6.05. - Hearings by council.
After the council shall have passed the budget ordinance on first reading, it shall hold hearings on the proposed operating budget, as well as on the capital improvements budget as provided in section 6.13 hereof, but the hearing on the capital improvements budget shall be heard prior to those on the proposed operating budget, and the hearings on either budget may be adjourned from time to time. Budget hearings shall be advertised in a daily newspaper of general circulation published in the area of the metropolitan government at least seven days prior to the date or dates set for the beginning of such public hearings. 

Sec. 6.06. - Action by council on operating budget.
After the conclusion of the public hearings, the council may amend the operating budget proposed by the mayor; except, that the budget as finally amended and adopted must provide for all expenditures required by law or by other provisions of this Charter and for all debt service requirements for the ensuing fiscal year as certified by the director of finance. Neither shall the council alter the estimates of receipts or other fund availability included in the budget document except to correct errors and omissions, in which event a full explanation shall be spread on the minutes of the council. In no event shall the total appropriations from any fund exceed the estimated fund balance, reserves and revenues, constituting the fund availability of such fund.
The council shall finally adopt an operating budget for the ensuing fiscal year not later than the thirtieth day of June, and it shall be effective for the fiscal year beginning on the following July 1st. Such adoption shall take the form of an ordinance setting out the estimated revenues in detail by source and making appropriations according to fund and by organizational unit, purpose or activity as set out in the budget document. If the council shall fail to adopt a budget prior to the beginning of any fiscal year, it shall be conclusively presumed to have adopted the budget as submitted by the mayor.

If the Council would have had a majority of those present vote "no" on the budget on first reading, the Mayor's budget would have become law without even being voted on. The Council cannot even amend or substitute the Mayor's budget until after the public hearing.
 To move the process forward and have a chance of substituting the budget, it had to pass on first reading.

Unfortunately, I think it is going to be difficult to pass a no-tax increase budget. Here is why:

  1. The charter stacks the deck in favor of the Mayor as noted above. That is the main reason, however in my opinion, these are also other impediments to the council passing a no-tax budget, 
  2. Due to a strict adherence to the sunshine law, the council cannot meet in small groups to work out details of an alternative. No horse trading and deal making can occur.  It is difficult to negotiate an alternative budget in committee. 
  3. Due to term limits we have few council members who have ever gone through a budget process  with a proposed tax increase so we have few members who have the experience or power to develop an alternative budget. 
  4. The general will is hard to be heard over the will of employees, teachers, policemen, Chamber of Commerce, the media, the Realtors, etc. Those who have a vested interest in getting something from government or who are committed to a specific cause funded by government are often people who always vote in Council elections and make an effort to influence the Council, whereas those who are motivated to stop a tax increase may be calling a councilman for the first time or may have not even voted in Council elections before. Those who want something from government, may have contributed money, or worked the polls or had a yard sign for a candidate in their yard.  Also, policemen and firemen have big families and they all vote. The specific interest seem to be better connected and more knowledgeable about the Council than those with a general interest.

I think a No-tax increase budget is possible, but only if there is a massive, massive outpouring of opposition. 

I hate to be pessimistic, but I think a budget giving the mayor 1/3 to half of what he wants is about the best we can hope for. I am not giving up even before we start, but it is an up hill climb.

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