Budget autonomy referendum will go to voters

Elections officials chose not to heed Nathan’s warnings. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

Updated 5:30 p.m. with additional comment 

D.C. residents will vote April 23 on whether the D.C. government should enjoy more spending freedom from Congress after elections officials chose not to heed warnings from the District’s attorney general that the measure is, in his view, unlawful.

The Board of Elections  moved Tuesday to publish the ballot language in Friday’s D.C. Register. In doing so, they did not offer reasons for rebuffing Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan, who argued in a Friday letter and in testimony at a Monday hearing that the board should reject the referendum as an unlawful exercise outside the powers granted to the city by Congress.

Kenneth McGhie, the board’s general counsel, said that while the body’s three members agreed to move forward with the referendum, it is still undetermined whether or how they will explain their rationale.

“Everybody came up with different reasons why,” he said.

Ted Gest, a spokesman for Nathan, declined to comment.

Backers of the referendum strategy were heartened by the board’s decision not to intervene. “We’re excited that the issue of local budget autonomy will be before the people of the District of Columbia,” said James Jones, communications director for the D.C. Vote nonprofit.

Besides moving forward with the charter amendment, the board also declined to take Nathan’s suggestion that the ballot language reflect the uncertain legality of the charter amendment. The approved summary makes no mention of the controversy: 

Currently, the Home Rule Act requires affirmative Congressional action with respect to the entire District budget (both federal and local funds).

This Charter Amendment, if ratified, enacted and upheld, would permit the Council to adopt the annual local budget for the District of Columbia government; would permit the District to spend local funds in accordance with each Council approved budget act; and would permit the Council to establish the District’s fiscal year.

Mike DeBonis covers Congress and national politics for The Washington Post. He previously covered D.C. politics and government from 2007 to 2015.

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Mike DeBonis · January 8, 2013

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