In Washington, DC, the heated campaign for mayor demonstrates the ubiquity of the incentives that face politicians of all parties at all levels of government. Vincent Gray, a Democrat and the current Council Chair poses the only serious threat to Democrat incumbent Adrian Fenty, and the winner of the democratic primary will almost certainly become the city’s next mayor.
Recently, Gray stumbled in public opinion when he proposed cutting funding for DC’s proposed street cars in an effort to help close the city’s half billion dollar budget gap. The Washington Post reports:
It was midnight Tuesday, and D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray had it all figured out. To help close a projected $550 million budget gap, he would take an ax to the city’s plan to build a new streetcar system — one of his mayoral rival’s pet projects.
But hours later — after a backlash from at least one member of Congress and hundreds of residents who jammed government phone lines, community e-mail groups and Gray’s Web site — the late-night maneuver had been scrapped. By midday Wednesday, Gray was back at the council dais, telling his colleagues that he and city finance officials had found $50 million to keep the streetcar program on track.
In their efforts to gain election and reelection, politicians have strong incentives to provide goods to their constituents without charging for them. Gray is out of the ordinary in that he reached this course of action only after public backlash, yet in the end he was unable to reduce public services to work toward closing his city’s budget gap.
Similarly, critics have charged that Mayor Fenty has not exhausted his options for cutting services and raising revenues. On his efforts The Washington Post writes:
The mayor’s budget lacks, some of his critics charge, imagination and grit — ignoring tough decisions and continuing to borrow from the city’s already weakened reserve funds to close a $550 million gap.
Political incentives, when met with economic downturn, have placed many cities in difficult financial positions. They also mean that regardless of who wins the DC mayoral election, it is unlikely that future city politicians will be able to stand up to strong political pressures in order to provide the city with fiscal stability.