IT'S ONLY a legislative beginning, but yesterday the House District Committee approved a package of legislation that amounts to the largest expansion of local autonomy for the District since Congress passed the home rule charter. While most residents of this city would agree with committee chairman Ronald V. Dellums that the changes should have been granted years ago, lawmakers noted that the coming transfer of local power from Marion Barry to a new mayor is improving prospects for congressional support of additional home rule authority for the District -- as well as some serious money. The bills still need approvals by the full House, which is expected to take up the measures within two weeks; the next stop would be the Senate, where the likelihood of consideration before adjournment is slim but certainly worth pursuing.
One proposal would raise the annual federal payment to the District from $430 million to $490 million in the fiscal year that started Monday. While that's not a whole lot of working cash given the fact that the amount hasn't been changed in five years, it's a good break with an important additional feature: a formula would determine future amounts. The payments would be fixed at 19.5 percent of local revenue. In 1985, the payment represented 20 percent, but by 1990 it had decreased to 14 percent. What didn't decrease -- but increased -- during this period were various responsibilities from the federal government, such as management of St. Elizabeths Hospital and other social services programs.
The committee also struck for more local government efficiency by cutting the time that Congress would have for reviewing each District government law from 30 legislative days to five. The committee also voted 11 to 1 to establish a Supreme Court for the District and to establish four new Superior Court judgeships to reduce the backlog of appellate cases in the local courts. Any new funds authorized by the measures still would have to go through the congressional appropriations processes.
The bipartisan votes for these changes are a healthy sign -- even if Rep. Stan Parris refused to support the federal payment change. The second-ranking Republican on the committee, Virginian Thomas J. Bliley Jr., not only voted for the bill but also said he expects to gain support on the House floor from "the overwhelming majority of Republicans."
None of these improvements -- nor any others that the city deserves -- will make it if the next District administration doesn't deliver on campaign pledges to trim the bureaucracy. But now, at least, there is some indication that a new day at city hall could mean better days when the city goes up the Hill to make its case for more local autonomy.