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D.C. Council to Consider Referendum on Budget Autonomy

After a year of stops and starts trying to move D.C. budget autonomy legislation through Congress, local activists and their allies are pursuing a new strategy to give the District a freer hand with its finances.

On Tuesday morning, acting D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) is expected to introduce legislation authorizing a citywide referendum to amend D.C.’s home rule charter to allow the city government to set its own budget on its own fiscal calendar.

If the full council endorses the referendum by the end of the legislative session in early December, residents would have the opportunity to vote on it during the next scheduled election, likely a special election expected to take place as early as April.

If passed, Congress would have 35 days to pass a disapproval resolution on the charter amendment. If Congress fails to do so, the proposal would go into effect.

It’s a politically savvy and legally sound move, orchestrated by Mendelson in close concert with DC Vote and D.C. Appleseed, two organizations that have been working to achieve greater autonomy for the District without messy – and often unsuccessful – fights on Capitol Hill.

The Home Rule Charter forbids amendments via referendum on issues such as revising the Height Act, instituting a D.C. commuter tax or establishing local voting rights. But the charter is silent on using a referendum to delink D.C.’s budget from the Congressional appropriations process.

The main benefit of passing budget autonomy via referendum lies in the structure of the process: If Congress doesn’t like the results of the referendum, or any bill passed by D.C. Council for that matter, it has a certain window of time to pass a resolution overturning the decision, which must then be signed by the president. The multi-step task of undoing locally passed legislation and charter amendments on Capitol Hill has meant that Congress has rarely bothered to exercise this right.

It all looks good on paper, but the timing of the referendum’s introduction could potentially dampen local officials’ and activists’ relationship with their staunchest Congressional allies who have expended some political capital trying to advance the cause of budget autonomy in the 112th Congress.

As chairman of the D.C.-focused Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) has championed the issue and promised to pursue other avenues to help the District achieve more autonomy across the board. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) has praised Issa for his efforts, even though he has been unable to deliver a rider-free budget autonomy measure and voted a few months ago on a bill that would have restricted abortions after 20 weeks in the District of Columbia.

It’s not clear what effect the referendum might have on Issa’s willingness to continue supporting autonomy legislation, especially if he continues to serve as chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee in the 113th Congress.

Issa’s spokesman would not say how the chairman felt about the new developments and what effect it might have going forward. A spokesman for Norton, who might feel slighted in her own efforts to mobilize support on Capitol Hill and work with Issa and other influential lawmakers, also declined to comment.

But Ilir Zherka and Walter Smith, executive directors of DC Vote and D.C. Appleseed, respectively, emphasized that while pursuing the referendum was clearly an acknowledgement that things weren’t working out the way they would prefer in Congress, it’s not a signal that they don’t appreciate Norton’s efforts.

“I think it makes sense for the District and for the Council to open up a second track, given that the prospects of legislation passing are not great and difficult, even according to what our allies have said,” Zherka told Roll Call.

Smith agreed.

“I think [the referendum] sends a very strong message to Issa that we support D.C. budget autonomy,” he said.

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