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Norton Presses House to Grant D.C. Legislative, Fiscal Autonomy

If Congress passes a bill that would free the District of Columbia’s local budget from the federal appropriations process, D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) said she would then renew efforts to grant legislative autonomy to the city government.

“Legislative autonomy ought to be a piece of cake because essentially it is a dead letter anyway,” Norton said following a Friday hearing of the House Government Reform Committee.

That bill, which Norton sponsored in the 107th Congress, would eliminate Congressional review of civil or criminal legislation passed by the D.C. City Council.

Norton noted that since the creation of the Home Rule Act in 1973, Congress has overturned only a handful of bills passed by the city’s government. She added that even if the automatic review is eliminated, Congress could still void any acts of which it disapproves.

“If [Congress] wanted to overturn a bill, we can introduce a bill to overturn a bill,” Norton said.

D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams (D) noted the City Council is often required to pass numerous versions of the same bill — as emergency, temporary and then permanent legislation — “for alley closings all the way up to the big things.”

Norton, who introduced the District of Columbia Budget Autonomy Act in February along with Government Reform Chairman Tom Davis (R-Va.), said, for now, she plans to “keep Congress focused on budget autonomy because that is very difficult.”

If passed, the bill 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.

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.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), chairwoman of the Governmental Affairs Committee, is expected to introduce a companion budget autonomy bill Monday.

D.C. City Council Chairman Linda Cropp (D) noted: “[I]ncreased autonomy for locally elected officials — both budgetary autonomy as well as legislative autonomy, which we also hope you will consider — will necessarily increase accountability of the locally elected officials for their actions.”

Although Davis, along with Reps. John Carter (R-Texas) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), spoke favorably of the budget legislation, the Virginia lawmaker wasn’t ready to endorse legislative autonomy. “Let’s get this bill done and we’ll talk about the next one,” Davis said.

During Friday’s hearing District officials also discussed the possibility of moving the city’s fiscal year to a July/June schedule, rather than the October/September year used by federal agencies.

D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi called the current calendar “unsuited to local government.”

“Were the District to execute its fiscal year budget beginning in July, it would be proceeding on the most recently available, and therefore most accurate, revenue information,” Gandhi said. The city uses income tax payments (due in April) and semi-annual property tax payments (collected in March) to estimate its revenue for the fiscal year.

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