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DC Council Looks to Streamline Statehood Efforts

Mendelson and Gray both support new statehood efforts. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

In the four decades since Home Rule, elected officials in the District of Columbia have created four different commissions aimed at making the city the 51st state. Looking at the current condition of those panels, it might be obvious why the flag only has 50 stars.  

Each one has no members, according to D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson. None one of the four have been functioning for years, "if ever," he said Monday at a briefing previewing the council's Tuesday legislative agenda.  

Included on that agenda is a complicated piece of legislation designed to streamline more than 200 mayor-appointed boards and commissions in D.C. would consolidate and bolster the statehood effort. Introduced in January 2013 as the "Boards and Commissions Reform Act," the council recently revamped the bill by adding "New Columbia Statehood Initiative" to the title and injecting more than a quarter-of-a-million dollars into the fight.  

The bill, expected to get a final vote Tuesday, would eliminate 31 panels deemed inactive or unnecessary, including the Statehood Commission, the Statehood Compact Commission, District of Columbia Statehood Delegation Fund Commission, and the 51st State Commission. It would establish two new independent agencies: the Office of Statehood Delegation, and the New Columbia Statehood Commission. In its most recent budget, D.C. earmarked $225,800 under the Statehood Initiatives Agency. According to a fiscal impact statement from Chief Financial Officer Jeffrey S. DeWitt, that funding would be used to pay the salary of the OSD's executive director. Any remaining money would support the New Columbia Statehood Fund.  

To Josh Burch, a Brookland resident and city employee who has been devoting all his spare time to lobbying for statehood, it looks like the District is finally putting some "political muscle" behind the effort. "With funds, there's an added responsibility" and a way to "hold people accountable for performance," he said in an interview with CQ Roll Call. "I don't think we need more reports on statehood," Burch said, referring to the output of previous statehood commissions. "We need a clear and concise plan forward ... with people working on this full-time."  

The purpose of the OSD will be to provide support to the statehood delegation in promoting statehood and voting rights for the citizens of the District of Columbia, according to reports on the legislation. The executive director would be solely devoted to OSD, while the NCSC will solicit funding and promote statehood initiatives. NCSC will have five commissioners: the mayor, council chairman and the three members of D.C.'s shadow delegation, who effectively serve as unpaid lobbyists to Congress.   The bill requires NCSC to meet semi-annually.  

"This is a real opportunity to have an institutional way for the delegation to work with the mayor and the council chairman," D.C. Shadow Sen. Paul Strauss told CQ Roll Call. "It's more money than we've had in a while. ... It's a good start." The Democrat, who has a law firm in D.C. and is up for re-election on Nov. 4, said a bill to provide full funding for the shadow delegation is more in line with "our initial approach," but "there's something positive about a coordinated effort that directly involves the executive and legislative branches.”  

Mayor Vincent Gray supports the legislation. Mendelson described it as an effort to concentrate efforts and "build momentum," but did not go into detail during the briefing about the approach the team would use.  

As the man behind Neighbors United for D.C. Statehood, Burch thinks the office should coordinate citizens. He also thinks they should launch a national advocacy campaign. Perhaps most importantly, Burch wants consistency and "continuity" for the new office.  

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., was not immediately available for comment.  

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