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D.C. Budget Autonomy Proposed

D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) is pushing ahead with plans to free a majority of the District of Columbia’s budget from the Congressional appropriations process.

Norton, along with House Government Reform Chairman Tom Davis (R-Va.), introduced the District of Columbia Budget Autonomy Act on Monday.

If passed, the legislation would amend the Home Rule Act to allow the District to circumvent the appropriations process and enact its local budget Oct. 1, the start of the fiscal year.

“Budget autonomy is second only to statehood and voting rights in importance to the residents … in the District of Columbia,” Norton said.

The District’s fiscal 2003 budget became ensnared in the appropriations process when Congress failed to pass 11 of its 13 spending bills and used continuing resolutions to maintain the federal government.

In outlining his support for the bill, Davis referred to the fiscal 2003 hold-up as a “debacle” and embarrassment for Congress.

Among those District agencies impacted by the delay was the public school system, which was forced to return textbooks to a manufacturer, decrease bus service and cancel school supplies, when a scheduled budget increase did not kick in, according to Norton.

No sponsor of a Senate version of the bill has emerged, but Davis and Norton are both optimistic about the bill’s prospects.

A spokeswoman for Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who chairs the Governmental Affairs panel and its subcommittee on oversight of government management, restructuring and the District of Columbia, said the Senator has not considered introducing a version of the bill.

D.C. Shadow Sen. Paul Strauss (D), who lobbies for voting rights and statehood as well as other District issues on Capitol Hill, noted: “Obviously we’d like to try and find someone as soon as possible, but that could be easier if we could get hearings right away, get this out of committee and then we could get this thing passed.”

The proposal did receive support from President Bush in his fiscal 2004 budget proposal, released Monday.

“Having the president’s support for this is critical,” Davis noted. “His interest in the city is also very important to our success.”

The change would apply to the District’s locally raised funds, which make up the majority of the budget. However, Congress would still need to enact a D.C. appropriations bill to finance criminal justice and defender services, courts and tuition assistance programs.

Under the legislation, Congress would have 30 calendar days to review the budget proposal, as long as the District submits it by Sept. 1. “This gives Congress time should they want to intervene, to intervene as a practical matter,” Davis said.

Norton stressed, though, that the legislation does not eliminate the possibility of Congressional intervention in District affairs.

“The only way to get rid of the notion of attachments altogether is to get statehood,” she said.

Norton later added: “If you have budget autonomy there is less likelihood of riders, less likelihood for holdovers, but nobody should misunderstand what the District has always meant by budget autonomy, and the difference between budget autonomy and statehood.”

Although the legislation would provide the District with more independence from Congress, the act can be rescinded if the District violates any of seven provisions, by: borrowing money from the Treasury; defaulting on loans, bonds, or notes; failing to provide sufficient funds to a debt service reserve fund; failing to meet payroll; failing to make pension payments; failing to make payment to any entity under an interstate compact; or showing a cash deficit at the end of any quarter of a fiscal year.

“The city is not out of the doldrums in terms of its budget. It’s living hand to mouth every year,” Davis said, adding that many jurisdictions across the country are in similar states.

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