Outside the John A. Wilson Building in downtown D.C., a scrolling sign makes a straightforward request of Barack Obama: “Mr. President, Demand DC Voting Rights.”
Though officials inside city hall would love to hear Obama answer that plea in Tuesday night’s State of the Union address, they doubt this will be the year D.C. statehood gets its dues.
“I would love to be optimistic about that,” Mayor Vincent Gray said with a hearty laugh when asked about his hopes for the big speech on Tuesday. The license plates in Obama’s motorcade show support for D.C. voting rights, but the mayor and other city leaders think he is unlikely to voice that approval in his speech.
“We wish that he would,” Gray said. “We wish that he would say something about budget autonomy in particular, because I think that’s a relatively easy one.”
Though the president proposed giving the District authority to spend its local funds without congressional approval in his 2014 budget proposal, that language didn’t make it into the final budget deal this month. The spending agreement for fiscal 2014 does contain a historic provision that allows the city to spend its local funds and remain open in the event of another government shutdown, but it does not free D.C. from the shackles of the congressional appropriations process.
Clarity from Obama would mean “the District being able to move forward without the limitations of a federal government that has more important concerns than local government,” said D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, who said he has no reason to think that issue will be included, “but that’s what I’d like to hear.”
A budget autonomy law took effect in the District on Jan. 1, but elected officials have been awaiting an opinion from the Government Accountability Office on its legal soundness. Local advocates who helped draft the amendment to the Home Rule charter, including DC Vote and DC Appleseed, say the District is legally obligated to follow the new process created by the law.
Councilmember Vincent Orange also said the District’s surplus of funds and consistently balanced budget prove “we are one of the best financially run jurisdictions in the nation, so we should be able to be in charge of our own dollars, just like other states.”
Gray and Orange, who are both campaigning for the April 1 Democratic mayoral primary, outlined some other issues Obama could mention that might be a boon for the District.
Orange wants the president to speak about the federal minimum wage. He is the author of legislation recently signed into law by Gray that will give the District one of the nation’s highest minimum wages by gradually hiking the rate to $11.50 by July 2016.
“It would be good if the federal government would get on board so we can just increase the quality of life for all Americans across this country,” Orange said.
Income equality and unemployment also rank high on Gray’s wish list, especially in light of new figures from the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics that show D.C.’s unemployment rate dropped to 8.1 percent in December. That is the lowest citywide unemployment rate in five years.
Gray hopes Obama will “talk about how the states and the cities would be supported in our efforts to get people back to work, especially those who are chronically unemployed.”
Gray also wants to hear about education, noting that Education Secretary Arne Duncan has been “effusive in his praise of the District of Columbia.”
Duncan singled out D.C.’s school system in a Washington Post editorial last week. He commended District leaders and educators for the drastic improvement in math and reading achievement for fourth and eighth graders. Duncan also applauded D.C.’s public preschool program for all 3- and 4-year-olds in October, and Gray is hoping for a State of the Union shout-out, since the Obama administration has been pushing to expand preschool to every 4-year-old in the county.
“I hope he will talk about early childhood education and the importance of that,” Gray said.