Photo by Jenn Durfey on Flickr.

Virginia and Maryland changed their gas taxes this year. Both proposals included weeks or months of debate, including public hearings before the legislature. DC made a similar change yesterday. The total time from the first news story about it to final vote? Less than a day.

In DC’s budget process, the mayor releases a proposed budget. Various council committees hold hearings over a period of weeks on their portions of the budget. Committee chairs then schedule markups, and just before the markups, release a draft of what they plan to change.

If the committee approves the changes, they all go to the council chairman, who then tries to assemble them into a budget. Habitually, the chairman releases his own budget late the night before the council is set to vote on the budget. If unexpected changes come up, that gives little time for residents to contact their councilmembers.

When then-Chairman Gray decided to cut streetcar funding in 2010, for instance, most councilmembers found out that morning. In a very short time, we, other blogs, residents using social media, and others were able to spread the word, which drove 1,000 calls to the chairman’s office in just 3 hours. Even so, it wasn’t in time to stop the Council from cutting the streetcar program. Instead, after lunch, they had to take a separate vote to restore the funding.

At each phase of the process, new ideas come up, and there is less time to react. There’s plenty of opportunity to weigh in on the mayor’s budget. But committee chairs don’t publicly circulate a draft of the changes they’re thinking about before any hearing. Most residents found out, for instance, about Mary Cheh’s plan to extend the Circulator to the Cathedral, Howard University, and Waterfront Metro, and pay for it with a fare increase, the night before or day of her committee’s vote.

Residents still had time to lobby council to reverse changes, as happened when Muriel Bowser suddenly and unexpectedly sliced funding for a Capitol Riverfront development project in favor of Ward 4 projects. After considerable pushback, Mendelson reversed part of that change yesterday.

But any ideas that come from the chairman have virtually no opportunity for public input. For some changes, those which are changes to the law to support the budget rather than the budget itself, the council has to pass its Budget Support Act twice, so the council could change things on its second reading. Still, that’s more difficult; members have already voted for something by that time.

This year, Chairman Phil Mendelson’s surprise budget changes went beyond just adding or removing funding for programs. He made some significant policy changes, like the gas tax. Other amendments put new requirements on government agencies’ ability to execute programs that already exist. We’ll talk about some of those next week.

If the Council restructured the gas tax or made other changes in a standalone bill, there would have to be a hearing, a markup, and two votes. But if the chairman slips a change into the budget the night before the budget vote, it means no hearing, no markup, and virtually no time for residents to weigh in.

Chairman Mendelson is very smart, but he can’t think of every implication of a policy. The gas tax switch might be a good idea, but that’s not the point. Maybe people have arguments against it that I haven’t heard, or Mendelson’s staff hasn’t heard. Even if it’s the right choice, it’s dangerous to make even a good move so hastily.

There’s a reason the legislative process is supposed to take some time. Residents need an opportunity to see the chairman’s final proposal, plus any amendments members plan to introduce, more than a few hours before the vote.

And even a day or two still isn’t the right amount for changes that go beyond simply deciding how much money to spend on what programs. Changes like the gas tax shift deserve to at least be part of a committee markup; most likely, changes of such significance ought to happen in standalone bills that get their own hearings and real deliberative thought.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Surface Transit. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions here are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.