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D.C. Leaders Eye Budget Autonomy

With a measure granting Congressional representation to the District of Columbia now in the hands of the Senate, city leaders went to work in the House last week to free up constraints placed on D.C.’s budget and legislation.

Every measure passed by the city must wait 30 or 60 legislative days before it can become law, even if Congress ultimately decides to change nothing in the bill’s language. The District’s budget must go through the federal appropriations process, forcing the city to pass it months in advance, even though federal leaders rarely make changes to it.

Those requirements can create significant delays on issues ranging from school funding to alley closings, officials said during a hearing of the Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on the federal workforce, Postal Service and the District of Columbia.

“We are simply asking for the ability to spend locally collected dollars without Congressional approval,” said D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty (D). “This will mean better, more efficient government for my constituents and less work for the federal staff who must review our budgets every year.”

Two bills introduced by Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) — the D.C. Budget Autonomy Act and the D.C. Legislative Autonomy Act — seek to remedy things by taking away the direct Congressional oversight over D.C. matters while still allowing Congress to step in if it is ever deemed necessary.

“Next to voting rights, I can think of nothing else that is more important,” Norton said, adding that D.C. currently functions as a colony because of the grip the federal government has placed on city functions.

Norton gave two recent examples of Congress intervening in local matters, most notably Fenty’s recent move to take over the city’s school system.

Although the bill moved through the House without any major problems, several Senators tied up the legislation to address other D.C. matters. Norton called it “a case study in stupidity and redundancy of government.” (The measure eventually got the thumbs-up from Congress.)

The other matter of business? A pay increase for D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi, who for seven years has worked for the city without getting a raise. (He still hasn’t gotten Congressional approval for it, although the city approved it weeks ago.)

“Instead of Eleanor working on immigration, the Iraq War … I’ve got to strategize about how to get a raise for a D.C. official,” Norton said.

Gandhi, who often is given credit alongside former Mayor Anthony Williams (D) for leading the city’s economic turnaround, said the two measures, especially the budget bill, “would give the city the flexibility to manage its affairs far more effectively.”

The city must pass its budget months before other jurisdictions, which means it functions on the previous year’s numbers, Gandhi said.

“Without greater budget autonomy, the citizens of the District, as well as visitors, have been and may continue to be denied access to certain public services in a timely matter,” Gandhi said.

Council Chairman Vincent Gray (D) told the panel that the City Council often is criticized for passing a large amount of emergency legislation but that sometimes it is the only way to do things quickly.

While 30 legislative days might seem like a small time period, Gray said, the actual amount of time before legislation goes into effect can be months. For example, if a bill is passed by the council in November, it could be March before Congress is actually in session for 30 days, he said.

“No local government can operate effectively without being able to respond quickly to local needs,” Gray added. “We don’t have a choice.”

There are some concerns about the measures. In a June 6 report, the Congressional Research Service wrote that one argument against the budget bill is if Congress grants the city autonomy, it essentially would abdicate its oversight duties over the District.

Opponents of the measure argue that such oversight is needed because if the District gets into financial trouble, Congress would need to intervene. This famously happened in the 1990s, when Congress created a Financial Control Board charged with fixing the city’s money troubles.

To some degree, many states oversee cities in a similar fashion, according to the report.

Fenty and other city leaders argued it is unlikely the city will ever get itself into a financial crisis such as what happened in the control board era.

There are a number of controls now in place to prevent this, Fenty said, including the independent CFO, the creation of five-year balanced budget plans, $1.4 billion in reserves — a number that the city hopes to grow — and the requirement of a fiscal impact statement for each piece of legislation passed.

John Hill, the former executive director of the control board, said that with the controls now in place, he is confident the city will maintain good financial standing.

“The city has demonstrated a commitment to maintaining fiscal control and discipline and other practices that have resulted in the city’s positive health,” Hill said.

But there also is concern about the legislative bill, most notably coming from one of D.C.’s strongest Congressional allies.

Oversight ranking member Tom Davis (R-Va.) — who crafted the framework of the current D.C. voting rights measure — said he does not think the current system is “unnecessarily burdensome” and actually offers a method to provide interaction among region officials and the federal government.

“Unlike the local budget, affirmative Congressional approval of local legislation is not required in the form of an act of Congress,” Davis said. “To the contrary, it would take literally an act of Congress, known as a Resolution of Disapproval, to prevent local enactments from going forward, and there is a very short time frame for such an action.”

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