Four months of bickering over the District's budget ended yesterday when the Senate approved the city's $4.7 billion spending plan for the current fiscal year and sent it to President Clinton, who has said he would sign it.
The protracted partisan fighting--six separate votes, two presidential vetoes and an assortment of social amendments--overshadowed what many lawmakers and city leaders said was one of the best D.C. budgets in the 25 years of home rule. It is balanced, cuts taxes and carries a surplus. The Senate approved the measure 74 to 24.
"We've worked long and hard to turn this city around," said Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), chairman of the House Government Oversight subcommittee on the District. "This budget . . . is another step in helping keep us moving in the right direction."
In the end, Congress merged the D.C. appropriations package with five other spending bills, which added to the delay. The budget year started Oct. 1, but lawmakers kept money flowing to the city until the giant money package was approved. No other city endures a budget process like the District's. Six approvals are needed, as opposed to one or two in most jurisdictions.
Lawmakers included money to improve the waterfront in Anacostia and in Southwest Washington, add lanes to the 14th Street bridges, provide incentives to adopt foster children, combat open-air drug markets and start a program that allows D.C. high school graduates to attend Maryland and Virginia colleges and universities at in-state tuition rates.
"It's about time," Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) said of the vote. "Now that our budget is finally passed, we can begin to implement many of the important initiatives it contains: tuition for high school graduates, expanded programs for kids and health insurance pilot programs, to name a few."
The budget also includes the largest tax cut in the city's history and gives $20 million to Williams to use as severance money to dismiss up to 1,000 city workers. It was unclear whether the small across-the-board federal spending cut negotiated by Congress and the White House would affect the District.
Congress also overrode D.C. residents' right to make their own decisions--the concept of home rule--on the grounds that the Constitution allows Congress final say on D.C. matters.
Nowhere was that more evident than lawmakers' decision not to allow District residents access to marijuana for medicinal purposes. Last year, 69 percent of D.C. voters approved a referendum on the issue, but many in Congress thought it would set a bad example. While seven states have voted to permit medical marijuana, the city's effort was so contentious that the results were not released for a year.
Republicans and Democrats attached so-called riders, items the city did not seek, to the budget. The one that delayed the budget in the end prevents the city from spending both its own money and federal funds on programs to distribute free, clean needles to drug addicts to reduce the spread of HIV. Over the objections of many House Republicans, Congress lifted an existing ban on private clinics that receive federal funds from handing out needles.
The Whitman-Walker Clinic in the District receives about $6.3 million in federal money, or 28 percent of its $22.5 million annual budget. The clinic halted its needle-exchange program last year after Congress threatened to cut off its federal funding. Under the legislation passed yesterday, the clinic can resume the program without losing federal money.
"It's a small step," said Carl Schmidt, a District gay activist who has been lobbying lawmakers for an expanded needle-exchange program. "The District should be able to spend its own money on needle-exchange programs, just like 100-odd other cities do. But it will make the program more meaningful. People don't understand that a third of all new HIV cases in the District are through intravenous drug use."
Heading into this year's budget debate, senators and representatives of both parties generally agreed on the city's spending proposal. The House and Senate approved it overwhelmingly even with the controversial riders, which Democrats believed would be stripped when the bill went to a conference committee of lawmakers from both chambers.
When lawmakers didn't remove some of the riders, as Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) and others had hoped, the city's political leaders made a strategic decision to oppose the budget and enlist the president's pledge to veto the bill if the riders weren't taken out. Many District leaders faced a difficult choice between accepting a generous spending plan or defending home rule by seeking deletion of the riders.
"It was a close call," Williams said, looking back.
Norton said the choice was between the principle of home rule and the perils of caving in to conservative Republicans. She said she learned that D.C. home rule rights are as important a Democratic Party value as protecting Social Security, Medicare and education for poor children.
"When you're under attack by Congress, you better stand and fight, or they will take you out," Norton said.
HIGHLIGHTS OF D.C. BUDGET BILL
* Largest tax cut in city's history, $300 million over the next five years. Rate changes in income, personal property, real property and franchise taxes.
* $436 million in federal funds for programs such as corrections.
* $150 million budget reserve to prevent a deficit.
* $17 million for program allowing District high school seniors to pay in-state tuition rates at colleges and universities in Maryland and Virginia.
* $5 million to clean up Anacostia River for waterfront development; $3 million for repairs to Southwest waterfront.
* $5 million to create incentives to adopt foster children.
* $1 million to Metropolitan Police Department to combat open-air drug markets.
* $5 million to design lane additions to the 14th Street Bridges.
* Prohibits District from legalizing marijuana for medicinal purposes.
* Bans federal and District funds from being spent on program to distribute clean needles to drug addicts to curb the spread of HIV. However, private clinics such as Whitman-Walker can use their money to hand out needles without having their federal funds cut off.
* Caps fees at $60 an hour for private attorneys who represent special-ed students against the D.C. school district. Allows school superintendent, mayor and control board to decide whether to set a higher cap.
* Sets top salary for D.C. council members at $84,000 a year instead of $92,500.
* Allows Bell Atlantic Mobile to put up cellular telephone towers in Rock Creek Park, no matter what local planning agencies decide.
* Prohibits use of federal or D.C. funds to be used in legal actions seeking D.C. voting representation in Congress. Allows for the first time D.C. corporation counsel to review briefs in private lawsuit seeking D.C. voting rights and brief city council.
* $6.7 million for environmental cleanup of Lorton Correctional Facility in Fairfax County.