‘Yes on 8′ campaign kicks off push for D.C. budget autonomy

February 21, 2013
Expect to see these signs on the street soon, referendum backers say. (D.C. Vote)
Expect to see these signs on the street soon, referendum backers say. (D.C. Vote)

In a little more than two months, District voters will head to the polls for the special election of an at-large D.C. Council member, but also to render a verdict on a referendum that backers believe could give the city considerably more freedom to set its budget without congressional interference.

Referendum backers Thursday launched a “Yes on 8″ campaign — the measure has been designated Referendum 8 — to ensure the budget autonomy measure’s success.

The campaign is being led by the D.C. Vote nonprofit but has been organized as a separate entity, the “D.C. Budget Freedom Committee,” to accept outside donations to the cause.

There are no indications that organized opposition to the April 23 referendum will emerge, but D.C. Vote spokesman James Jones said backers want to be prepared. “I think people need to understand that we’re going to run a serious campaign,” he said. “This is a super important new step for the people of the District of Columbia, and we want to get that out there.”

If approved, the measure would allow the city to spend its approximately $6 billion a year in locally raised tax dollars without a congressional appropriation. The District government could set its own fiscal year, and it could continue operating during a federal government shutdown for the first time. But the referendum maneuver — which emerged after attempts to get a budget autonomy bill through Congress were complicated by Republican riders — has been challenged as potentially illegal, including by the District’s attorney general.

Jones said D.C. Vote has seeded the “Yes on 8″ campaign with in-kind donations of signs and literature, but he added that the group — chaired by D.C. Vote Chairman Jon Bouker — would soon start raising funds independently. One priority, Jones said, is to reach newer residents who may not be aware of the budget autonomy issue or engaged in local politics at all through street canvassing and other means.

Yard signs should start popping up soon, Jones said, with street placards, Internet ads and visits to community groups soon to follow. He declined to discuss the campaign’s fundraising targets.

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) was among those who attended a John A.  Wilson Building event this morning kicking off the campaign. But it appears that one prominent politico will not be a part of the “Yes on 8″ push: Mayor Vincent C. Gray reiterated his concerns about the referendum in a NewsChannel 8 appearance Thursday morning.

“I have been dubious from the very onset,” Gray said. “There are a number of people, myself included, who believe it won’t just be quite that simple. If it is, wonderful.”

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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Mike DeBonis | February 21, 2013