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Jose Serrano Endorses D.C. Budget Referendum

As House Republican sources express displeasure at the D.C. Council’s decision to pursue budget autonomy on its own, a senior House Democrat is lauding the new strategy.

Rep. Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.), the ranking member of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government, which oversees the D.C. budget, released a statement today in support of the Council’s plan to pursue a referendum that would amend the District charter to unlink D.C.’s budget from the Congressional appropriations process.

Apart from D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) and Republican spokesmen, Serrano is the first lawmaker on Capitol Hill to weigh in.

“By moving to conduct a referendum and amend their charter, the Council will be working within the powers it has been given by the Home Rule Act,” Serrano said in the statement. “Through this process, we will see the direct expression of the D.C. people’s desire for more direct control over their own affairs. This is democracy at its very core. The process that they have laid out is transparent and fair, and should be respected by Congress once it has taken place.”

Speaking with Roll Call after the release of his statement, Serrano brushed aside concerns that the referendum could jeopardize negotiations with Congressional Republicans over legislation to grant the city budget autonomy. He said Congress has shown a consistent unwillingness to grant D.C. expanded rights without a catch, such as restrictions on local abortion funding or rollbacks of the city’s gun laws.

“I can’t say I’m confident [in a Congressional budget autonomy bill] because history shows that Republicans don’t want to give D.C. autonomy,” Serrano said. “If we wait around for Congress to do something, we might go back to the days where it won’t let D.C. do anything.”

If the D.C. Council by the end of this year passes a bill authorizing the referendum – and it likely will, since all councilmembers are co-sponsors – residents will have a chance to vote on it during the next special election, which is likely to take place as early as April. If the referendum passes, Congress will have 35 days to vote to reject the outcome. If Congress fails to take such action, D.C. would be able to set its own fiscal calendar and control its own local funds.

Local officials support budget autonomy and are heartened by the momentum that’s built around the issue over the past year. Both chambers came close twice to marking up budget autonomy legislation before the they were derailed by policy riders that Democrats and D.C. officials found odious, and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the D.C.-focused Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has become an unlikely champion for moving the issue forward.

But this very momentum on Capitol Hill is the reason some D.C. officials and Congressional allies feel the D.C. Council’s move is ill-advised. While advocates say the referendum approach would not detract from efforts in Congress, critics think it could send the wrong message about the District’s appreciation for the lawmakers who have expended political capital to help it. There are also concerns that the referendum could be challenged in court, ultimately making the exercise somewhat futile.

D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray (D), who has been working hard to forge good relationships with Congressional lawmakers on the budget autonomy front, has not released a statement on the Council’s new strategy.

Norton has also not offered a formal endorsement of the plan, saying it could very well run afoul of the law based on legal analyses and suggesting that she will continue to lobby for budget autonomy on Capitol Hill. A spokesman did, however, clarify Wednesday that Norton “hopes and expects D.C. residents to join her in voting ‘yes’ for budget autonomy when the issue appears on the ballot.”

As for House Republicans who, through aides, have said in the past few days that they don’t think it will be helpful for D.C. to explore its own path toward budget autonomy, Serrano suggested that “maybe they don’t want the Council to pass a clean budget autonomy bill that doesn’t have riders.”

According to DC Vote Executive Director Ilir Zherka, Serrano’s statement in support of the referendum strategy came as a welcome surprise. DC Vote and DC Appleseed were two of the strong forces behind orchestrating Tuesday’s introduction of the bill authorizing the referendum.

“His statement was powerful in that he recognized that the people of the District of Columbia have the right to move forward on the referendum on budget autonomy, and that they have rights under the Home Rule Charter,” Zherka said of Serrano. “In his position of leadership on a Capitol Hill subcommittee, that kind of statement is very important and I think people are going to pay attention.”

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