District of Columbia:

Fiscal Structural Balance Issues

GAO-02-1001: Published: Sep 4, 2002. Publicly Released: Sep 4, 2002.

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The District of Columbia has historically faced many challenges due to its unique circumstances and role as the nation's capital. After several years of struggling with financial crises and insolvency in the early 1990s, the District has significantly improved its financial condition by achieving five consecutive balanced budgets, an upgraded bond rating, and unqualified or "clean" opinions on its financial statements. More recently, however, District officials have asserted that the District faces a fiscal structural imbalance as a result of several factors, some stemming from the federal government's presence in the city, the absence of a state to provide funding for the state-like services provided by the District, and restrictions on the District's tax base. The District argues that it faces a fiscal structural imbalance between revenues and its expenditures that undermines its capacity to meet its current responsibilities. In contrast with a cyclical fiscal imbalance caused by temporary economic downturns, the District suggests that its imbalance is longer term and more fundamental and, therefore, structural in nature. The District's estimated measures of fiscal structural imbalance are based on the continuation of current budget policy over a longer term period spanning economic cycles, but do not consider the results of policy alternatives. District officials have cited constraints they face in raising revenues as well as what they assert are unique expenditure responsibilities stemming from the District's position as a federal city that must also provide state-like functions. On the revenue side, unlike state governments, the District is prohibited by federal law from taxing the incomes of nonresidents working in the District. On the spending side, the District officials state that they are uniquely burdened by the responsibilities of a state and by requirements to provide services to the federal establishment. However, the District's estimated costs associated with providing state-like services are not supported by detailed analysis and data, and they are derived from cost allocation formulas largely based on the judgment of District officials. The District received some federal relief through the National Capital and Self-Government Improvement Revitalization Act of 1997, which required the federal government to take over certain services in such areas as criminal justice, transferring their financing from D.C. taxpayers as a whole. In addition, the federal government assumed financial and administrative responsibilities for one of the District's largest fiscal burdens, which it inherited from the federal government as part of the transition to Home Rule in 1973--its unfunded pension liability for vested teachers, police, firefighters, and judges. Also, the federal government's share of the District's Medicaid payments was increased from 50 to 70 percent. Although the District's estimates point to many specific factors, they do not constitute a comprehensive assessment of imbalances between expenditures and revenue capacity. The District has not performed the analysis to determine whether it has the capacity to provide a level of services comparable to those provided by other cities with similar needs and costs. As a practical matter, such an analysis is key to determining the presence of an underlying structural imbalance in the District's finances.

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