Image by Ted Eytan licensed under Creative Commons.

A version of this article was first published by the DC Fiscal Policy Institute. Head here for the first and second installments.

Now that you have an idea of what is in the budget, we’ll go more in depth into how and when the budget is put together.

As we noted earlier, the District’s fiscal year begins October 1. Each October, just as one fiscal year is starting, officials start intensely planning for next year’s budget. In other words, budgeting is a year-round process in DC. There is involvement from the Mayor and the executive branch, the DC Council, the city’s Chief Financial Officer, and residents and interest groups.

By the end of the process of budget building, traditionally, two laws are adopted, and a set of budget documents are produced. The two laws are the Budget Request Act and the Budget Support Act.

The Budget Request Act sets the funding level for each agency and program. This legislation also includes allocations for federal payments for the few local functions provided entirely by the federal government, such as the court system. The Budget Request Act often is limited in detail; it does not show program-by-program funding for each agency. Instead, that information is provided in the budget documents. The District’s recent budget autonomy law has changed the format of the Budget Request Act, as discussed later on.

The Budget Support Act is legislation covering any budget changes that require a change in law, such as a tax change or a change in eligibility for a specific program. Simple increases or decreases in funding for a specific program—such as library collections—do not require legislation. It’s important to look at the Budget Support Act very closely. Sometimes initiatives that are not strictly related to that budget year are placed in the Budget Support Act, such as a proposal for the city to consider online gambling that showed up a few years ago.

The following sections highlight the key events and timeline for the DC Budget process. See also the infographic below.

September- December: Agencies develop budget requests

The Chief Financial Officer’s role: The CFO calculates how much it will cost the city to maintain the current level of services and obligations, which is known as the Current Services Funding Level (CSFL). The CSFL is calculated for the operating budget and for local funds only. It reflects changes in salary expenses, utilities, and other fixed costs, as well as any changes required by previously adopted laws, but does not reflect any potential new policy decisions. The CFO gathers information from agencies needed to calculate the CSFL and publishes it early in the fall.

The mayor’s role: The Mayor’s office, through the Office of the City Administrator, gives each agency a target budget number for local funds, which the agency’s operating budget request cannot exceed. This target number is often set below the current budget, to encourage agencies to look for savings. Agencies develop budget requests that meet those targets but are also allowed to submit requests for targeted service enhancements or new initiatives.

January-February: DC Council holds agency performance hearings

The CFO’s role: In February, the CFO issues a revenue forecast, one of four issued during the year to project expected revenue collections for the current year and upcoming three years. The budget that will later be submitted by the Mayor cannot spend more than the revenue projected in the February forecast.

The mayor’s role: The Mayor’s “budget review teams” meet with each agency to review their budget requests. In particular, the Mayor considers enhancements she will include. If the revenue forecast is less than the CSFL, the budget must be adjusted to remain within the revenue limits. Adjustments can include policies to increase revenue, such as additional taxes or fees, or cuts to spending. If the revenue forecast is higher than the CSFL baseline, the Mayor can make choices to enhance funding in selected areas.

The DC Council’s role: While the Mayor is preparing a budget proposal, the DC Council starts holding performance oversight hearings on the performance of each agency, to review the agency’s operations and effectiveness in implementing its budget over the last year. The DC Council is divided into a number of committees, which have oversight over a set of related agencies. The Committee on Transportation and the Environment, for example, reviews the budgets of more than a dozen agencies, including the Department of Public Works, Department of Transportation, and the Department of Motor Vehicles. In the hearings, Councilmembers ask questions about how the agency spent its money.

The head of the agency is also required to discuss the agency’s performance and expenditures in the past fiscal year and answer oversight questions from Councilmembers. Before each performance oversight hearing, each Council committee submits a detailed set of questions to the agencies they oversee. Those questions and the answers are posted on the DC Council website. You can contact the Council’s Office of the Budget Director, or the committee clerk for any committee of interest, if you need help finding these documents.

The resident’s role: DC residents and advocates play a key role in the budget process. This is a chance to inform the Council about how you see dollars being spent and to make recommendations for improving how an agency is funded. Residents are encouraged to testify on any aspect of an agency’s performance or budget. Let’s take public libraries, for example. Perhaps your neighborhood branch has reduced its acquisition of new books. The performance oversight hearing presents an opportunity to ask why that decision was made.

Residents can also submit questions for the Council committee members to ask agency officials at the performance oversight hearing. As noted, each Council committee submits a detailed set of questions to the agencies they oversee before each oversight hearing. There is no formal process for residents to submit questions, but you’re welcome to share your questions with staff of the relevant committee and encourage the committee to include your questions in their submission to the agency. You should contact a committee in January if you have questions to submit to the agencies. DC Council committees, their chairperson and members, and the agencies they oversee can be found in the Committees tab of the DC Council website.

March-early May: Mayor submits proposed budget to DC Council

The mayor’s role: The Mayor submits a proposed budget to the DC Council in mid- to late March. Many of the Mayor’s key budget decisions—whether to cut funds, increase funds, cut taxes, or raise taxes—are made in the few weeks before the budget is submitted. The Mayor submits two proposed budgets: the operating budget, which outlines how funds will be spent to run the agencies, and a capital budget, which is a six-year plan for building and renovating government facilities.

The DC Council’s role: After the Mayor’s budget is released, each Council committee holds budget oversight hearings on the portion of the budget the committee oversees. For example, the Committee on Human Services holds hearings on the budget for the Department of Human Services, Child and Family Services Agency, and the Department on Disability Services, among others.

As in the case in the performance oversight hearings held earlier in the year, each Council committee submits a detailed set of questions to each agency they oversee prior to the budget oversight hearings. Those questions and the answers are posted in the Budget Oversight page on the DC Council’s website. If you need help finding these documents you can contact the office of the DC Council’s Office of the Budget Director, or the committee clerk for any committee of interest.

After the budget oversight hearings are held, each DC Council committee meets to markup the portion of the budget they oversee. The markup is the process through which the committees make changes to the Mayor’s budget. While the committees can shift funds from one program to another or from one agency to another, they cannot propose spending more than the total amount in the Mayor’s proposed budget for the agencies overseen by that committee, unless they identify a new source of revenue, such as an increase in taxes or fees, or receive a transfer of funds from another committee.

The resident’s role: DC residents and advocates play an important role in shaping the DC Council’s budget decisions on how to alter the Mayor’s budget request by testifying at budget oversight hearings about portions of the budget they like or do not like. In addition, residents can submit questions to the committees to pass on to agencies.

Residents also meet with councilmembers to encourage funding increases for programs that are important to them. You can contact Councilmembers individually, by calling or sending emails. You may also want to join a group that advocates on your issue.

May-June: Budget gets voted on and sent to Congress

The DC Council’s role: In May, the entire DC Council votes on both the Budget Request Act and the Budget Support Act. In order to do that, the entire Council meets to reconcile actions taken at the Committee level and to deal with any outstanding issues.

As a result of a budget autonomy referendum passed by voters in 2013, the Council now passes two different Budget Request Acts. The Local Budget Act covers the locally funded portion of the budget and automatically becomes law after a 30-day congressional review period. The Federal Portion Budget Request Act covers the federally funded portion of the DC budget, and still needs to go through congressional budget process. Read more about budget autonomy on page 16.

Like all DC legislation, the budget has a second vote, or “second reading.” The second votes on all three bills—the Local Budget Act, the Federal Portion Budget Request Act, and the Budget Support Act—are held in late May or early June, and the final budget then is submitted to the U.S. Congress for a 30-day review. Notably, Congress very rarely changes anything.

The resident’s role: Advocacy by DC residents and advocates continues through the full Council votes. These last-minute efforts can make a big difference in the final budget.