Budget autonomy poses a marketing challenge to activists in D.C.

April 17, 2013

Major League Soccer coach Ben Olsen speaks as knowledgeably and fervently as any District resident about his adopted home town’s lack of a vote in Congress — so much so that he was the featured guest at a recent fundraiser for the cause.

“I’m part of this city,” he said. “I live here. I’m raising my family here.”

But when the longtime D.C. United player-turned-coach was asked to hold forth on a coming referendum on budget autonomy for the District, Olsen had a harder time expressing the value of the somewhat complicated proposal.

“I’m not pretending to be an expert about this stuff,” he said. “But from what I’ve gathered, it’s a good cause.”

Olsen’s impassioned but vague stance illustrates the challenges local activists are facing as they urge city residents to support the budget autonomy measure, set to appear on Tuesday’s special-election ballot alongside the race for an at-large D.C. Council seat.


Major League Soccer coach Ben Olsen’s impassioned but vague stance on D.C. budget autonomy illustrates the challenges local activists are facing as they urge city residents to support the measure. (Ned Dishman/Getty Images)

In a city that has long heard passionate arguments for congressional representation and statehood, the esoteric subject of budget autonomy has been a marketing challenge for advocates.

Referendum 8, as it is known, would give the D.C. government more freedom to spend locally raised funds — including District income, sales and property taxes — without a congressional appropriation. It would allow the city to set its own fiscal year and budget more efficiently, and city services could continue during a federal shutdown for the first time. But Congress would still be free to restrict the District’s spending on locally favored but nationally controversial matters such as abortion, needle exchange and medical marijuana.

Activists have sought to portray budget autonomy as part of a much larger and longer-term struggle to secure voting rights for D.C. residents.

Backers, led by the D.C. Vote nonprofit, have spent about $20,000 on signs urging residents to “free D.C.’s budget” and vote “yes on 8” and have organized community talks and a series of happy hours — including the one where Olsen was the featured guest.

“It’s absolutely an opportunity for District residents to take this issue of voting rights into their own hands and use the ballot box to express how they feel,” said D.C. Vote executive director Kimberly Perry.

The measure is expected to pass handily next week, but the attention it has brought to the voting rights cause is not likely to end there. Passage of the referendum is expected to set up an unusual showdown with Congress, which might seek to block the measure by legislation or possibly sue the District for exceeding its charter authority.

City leaders originally pursued budget autonomy in Congress, gaining a high-profile Republican ally in Rep. Darrell Issa (Calif.), chairman of the House committee overseeing District matters. But a companion Senate bill was dropped after Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) attached controversial amendments dealing with abortion, gun control and other issues. President Obama included budget autonomy language in his recent budget request, but it remains unlikely that congressional Republicans will assent to its adoption.

Activist groups turned to the referendum as an alternative route to budget autonomy, but it has been a legally controversial one. After the D.C. Council voted to proceed, D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan urged elections officials not to certify the referendum, arguing that it exceeds the powers granted to the city by Congress and could legally imperil city employees who spend taxpayer funds without authority. The city’s Board of Elections was not convinced.

Issa said in December that he feared the referendum would delay the effort to get a budget autonomy bill through Congress. But activists are not optimistic that will ever happen. They received a boost Sunday, when Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) gave his full-throated support to the referendum, reversing his previous opposition in a radio address.

“Whether it takes effect or not, it will still send a clear message to the nation that we not only deserve our freedom, but we demand it,” he said on WNEW (99.1 FM).

Closer to the ground, activists are taking the message to their fellow residents one at a time. Jeremy Cullimore, a 28-year-old Brookland resident, attended the Olsen fundraiser and described the challenges of selling budget autonomy to a confused public.

“People understand D.C. doesn’t have a vote [in Congress], but they don’t understand what Referendum 8 is going to do,” he said.

Cullimore said his pitch goes like this: “It’s the first step in a long process. We’re not getting a House representative or two senators, but it’s a bite at the dinosaur.”

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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