A D.C. Superior Court judge ruled Friday that District lawmakers — not members of Congress — have the power to control locally raised dollars, a decision that local officials hailed as a step toward autonomy.
Judge Brian Holeman upheld the Budget Autonomy Act, which voters approved in 2013. Questions about the act’s legality had left the measure in limbo.
Holeman found that the Home Rule Act allowed for the city to seek full control of dollars raised by local taxes and fees, and that the will of the voters should be preserved.
“This Court is unable to interfere with that lawful delegation of authority and exercise of that delegated authority by the Council, the Mayor, and the citizens of the District of Columbia,” the judge wrote in a 29-page opinion.
The referendum has been tied up in court for years. Attorneys for D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and the District have argued that it was legal, while the District’s chief financial officer contended that it was in violation of authority Congress has over the city under the Constitution.
“This ruling is an important step toward greater independence and autonomy for the District, as we continue to strive for the full statehood,” Bowser said in a statement.
D.C. Council member David Grosso (I-At Large) said the ruling means that the District can “spend all of our own money without congressional approval.”
And how might it be felt at ground level? For one, the city is prohibited from spending any local dollars to provide low-income residents access to full reproductive-health services, he noted.
But with budget autonomy, Grosso said, things could change. “When we have our own budget, if it doesn’t go to Congress, then it is likely we could actually spend dollars in that way — if that’s what we decide to do,” he said.
The District’s right to adopt its own budget was part of the city’s long-standing campaign for statehood.
Robert Marus, a spokesman for the D.C. attorney general’s office, which litigated on behalf of the District’s chief financial officer, said his office will review the judge’s ruling and make a decision regarding an appeal.
In a statement, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) called the judge’s ruling “historic” and said she hopes that the D.C. attorney general and chief financial officer accept the judge’s ruling.
Meanwhile, Congress would still have to approve about 10 percent of the District’s federal budget, as opposed to the 90 percent of the funds that are appropriated for local spending.