AT THE SAME TIME the District's financial calamities are growing, Mayor Barry is asking Congress to grant the city greater independence to levy taxes and set its own budget. Those requests are part of a legislative package he sent to the Hill last week. That package generally asks Congress to give the city more autonomy over its laws, courts and budget.
The city's financial problems and the mayor's request for greater financial independence are related. Much of the city's money troubles are due to its lack of control over the budget. For example, the city recently lost about $50 million to a ruling by the D.C. Court of Appeals that the congressionally approved home-rule charter does not allow the city to tax unincorporated professionals who work in the District and live in the suburbs. Problems with setting the city budget result because there is no fixed federal payment to the city. Changes in the city budget by Congress further confound the city's budget plans.
Despite these congressional chains on the District in money matters, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) has written the mayor to say that the ability of District officials to handle the city's current financial problems will be closely viewed by Congress before it considers how much to grant the city in supplemental funds to help ease the money shortage. The letter basically tells the mayor that the city is being tested to see if it handles responsibility well. And it makes it clear that Sen. Leahy wants the financial problems handled in the District Building without city officials' coming to the Hill expecting a rich uncle to bail them out.
Sen. Leahy is right in saying that the District should be solving its own financial problems with budget cuts, layoffs and freezes on purchasing. But the District cannot act to solve these problems independently unless it has full and independent power over its finances. It is unfair. Instead of making city officials' handling of the financial crisis a test of whether the city deserves fiscal autonomy, Congress should be helping to free the city from constraints in dealing with the problems.