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Save the date: On April 23, after more than a year of starts and stops on Capitol Hill, D.C. residents will get to take matters into their own hands and vote on whether to give themselves control of the city’s budget.
The District of Columbia Board of Elections and Ethics ruled unanimously on Tuesday to include a proposed charter amendment on the spring special election ballot that would unlink the District’s yearly budget from the congressional appropriations process.
Budget autonomy would give the mayor and D.C. Council the authority to approve all local spending decisions and set a fiscal calendar that best suits the needs of the city. It also would free the District from the threat of a shutdown each time Congress nears a budget stalemate.
Proponents of the referendum, including the D.C. Council’s general counsel and activist groups such as DC Vote, say they are within their legal rights: The Home Rule Act of 1973 includes nothing to prohibit the city from amending its charter to let D.C. spend its money without congressional approval.
“The Board’s decision puts [the] people of the District at the forefront of our fight for control over our own local tax dollars,” DC Vote Communications Director James Jones said in a statement.
But while it might seem too good to be true and all but promise a historic victory in the District’s long fight for self-determination, some critics predict the referendum will, if passed, become the victim of a lengthy and expensive court battle.
They say that only Congress has the authority to grant the District budget autonomy, and for D.C. to give itself the power to spend its own money would be in violation of the Antideficiency Act, which forbids federal entities, such as the federal city of D.C., from spending funds before they are appropriated, in this case by Congress.
Among these skeptics is the city’s own attorney general, Irvin B. Nathan, who at a Monday hearing of the elections board explicitly warned against the inclusion of the proposed charter amendment on the April 23 ballot.
Mayor Vincent Gray has also cautioned against moving forward. When the D.C. Council was poised to approve authorizing legislation at the end of December, he sent Council Chairman Phil Mendelson a lengthy letter detailing his opposition.
And Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton is not a fan, either. Though she said she would vote for the referendum on the special election ballot, she has expressed legal reservations and also an insistence that her efforts to reach a budget autonomy deal on Capitol Hill should not be underestimated.