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Two tracks to budget autonomy

By Walter Smith and Ilir Zherka,

Last week, Chairman Phil Mendelson and the other members of the D.C. Council unanimously introduced a bill to advance democracy for the people of the District.

The bill would allow D.C. voters to amend the Home Rule Charter in a referendum next spring to establish greater budget autonomy for the District. Under the bill, once the council and the mayor approve the spending of the District’s local revenue in its local budget, the city would no longer have to wait for Congress to affirmatively enact the budget.

Untangling the District’s budget from the federal appropriations process is an idea whose time has come. Congress almost never changes the District’s budget proposal.

And the District has produced a balanced budget for each of the past 11 years, building up cash reserves and dramatically improving its credit rating. Meanwhile, federal and state officials struggle to put their finances in order.

The lack of budget autonomy imposes significant costs upon the District. The D.C. government is at risk of shutting down every time the federal government faces a shutdown. The routine months-long delays in Congress to approve the District’s local budget cost the city millions in interest charges and undermine sound fiscal planning.

Given these circumstances, it’s no surprise that budget autonomy has bipartisan support. Presidents Obama and George W. Bush agreed that the District should be able to enact its own budget. The idea has also been endorsed by Rep. Darrell E. Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the committee that oversees the District, and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.). Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) has ably led a determined, bipartisan effort to enact D.C. budget autonomy legislation in Congress. We strongly support this work.

Congress, however, has thus far been unable to pass autonomy legislation. In fact, at the precise moments when both House and Senate committees seemed ready to advance the cause of democracy in the District, a determined minority in Congress threatened to offer unacceptable amendments. Our allies were then forced to pull their budget autonomy bill from consideration.

That is why D.C. residents should consider this question through a referendum, while our allies continue to pursue a legislative strategy on Capitol Hill. This is a two-track strategy.

Right now, some are taking aim at the D.C. budget autonomy referendum by asserting that the District may lack the authority to enact the charter amendment. We see it differently, as do a number of respected legal experts who will testify in support of the proposal at the upcoming council hearing on the bill, which we expect to take place within the next few weeks.

This new way forward is not perfect. But there are no perfect ways to fight entrenched injustice. At this point in our long struggle for democracy, letting D.C. residents vote on a referendum is the right next step.

Walter Smith is the executive director of the DC Appleseed Center for Law and Justice. Ilir Zherka is the executive director of DC Vote.

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