D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) is ending her office’s opposition to implementing a voter directive granting the city more control over its finances.
On Monday, the mayor asked a federal court to dismiss a lawsuit filed by the D.C. Council against her predecessor, Vincent C. Gray (D), over whether a successful 2013 referendum allows the city to spend locally raised funds without congressional approval.
The referendum has been in limbo since it passed, with federal and city officials questioning its legality.
“[Bowser] believes the Budget Autonomy Act is valid and, absent a judgment restraining her actions, intends to comply with its requirements,” attorneys for the mayor wrote. If allowed, she plans to file a motion spelling out her position in greater detail by March 23.
“As a member of the Council of the District of Columbia, I supported budget autonomy,” Bowser wrote in a letter to Council Chairman Phil Mendelson. “I also supported the Council’s decision to file suit when Mayor Gray said he would not implement the referendum. And as a candidate, I promised the electorate that I would uphold its will if elected Mayor. This pleading makes good on that promise and makes clear my intention to advocate responsibly and forcefully for the 83% of District residents who cast their ballots in favor of budget autonomy.”
Gray refused to enforce the amendment to the city charter, deeming it in violation of control Congress has over the District under the Constitution. Last year a federal judge sided with Gray and struck down budget autonomy, a decision facing appeal. A three-judge panel appeared to view the council’s case skeptically when oral arguments were heard in October. Should Bowser’s motion for dismissal be granted, the case and underlying injunction may be declared moot.
Legal barriers to budget autonomy may well remain. Jeffrey S. DeWitt, the District’s chief financial officer, still views budget autonomy as illegal, Bowser noted in a previous filing. So does Attorney General Karl Racine, who is representing DeWitt in the case. The city budget chief, who operates independently of the mayor, may refuse to implement the law, setting the stage for a new confrontation.
Like Gray, Racine supports budget autonomy while believing it must be granted by Congress. In a recent speech, the Haitan-American attorney general compared the federal government’s control over D.C.’s budget to slavery and colonial rule in Haiti.
Mendelson (D) said he knew the mayor had been considering the move for several weeks and said he hoped the judge would weigh seriously the new mayor’s position.
“We believe strongly in the correctness of our position, and the mayor’s position now shares that view,” Mendelson said. “The obvious part is that we are pleased with her decision but, in the end, what’s important is the merits of the case: The overwhelming vote of citizens was a legitimate process for amending the Home Rule Act.”
At issue is whether the referendum process was a permissible method to amend the District’s charter as it deals with budgetary issues. Supporters say it is under the 1973 Home Rule Act; opponents say only Congress has that power.
Currently, the president and Congress must approve D.C.’s budget, a system that has left the city vulnerable to national politics. Under the referendum, the D.C. budget would take effect unless Congress voted to reject it and the president agreed. It would not apply to special federal appropriations, which are only a small part of city spending.