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D.C. Election Board Sets Vote for Budget Autonomy Referendum

Save the date: On April 23, after more than a year of starts and stops on Capitol Hill, D.C. residents will get to take matters into their own hands and vote on whether to give themselves control of the city’s budget.

The District of Columbia Board of Elections and Ethics ruled unanimously on Tuesday to include a proposed charter amendment on the spring special election ballot that would unlink the District’s yearly budget from the congressional appropriations process.

Budget autonomy would give the mayor and D.C. Council the authority to approve all local spending decisions and set a fiscal calendar that best suits the needs of the city. It also would free the District from the threat of a shutdown each time Congress nears a budget stalemate.

Proponents of the referendum, including the D.C. Council’s general counsel and activist groups such as DC Vote, say they are within their legal rights: The Home Rule Act of 1973 includes nothing to prohibit the city from amending its charter to let D.C. spend its money without congressional approval.

“The Board’s decision puts [the] people of the District at the forefront of our fight for control over our own local tax dollars,” DC Vote Communications Director James Jones said in a statement.

But while it might seem too good to be true and all but promise a historic victory in the District’s long fight for self-determination, some critics predict the referendum will, if passed, become the victim of a lengthy and expensive court battle.

They say that only Congress has the authority to grant the District budget autonomy, and for D.C. to give itself the power to spend its own money would be in violation of the Antideficiency Act, which forbids federal entities, such as the federal city of D.C., from spending funds before they are appropriated, in this case by Congress.

Among these skeptics is the city’s own attorney general, Irvin B. Nathan, who at a Monday hearing of the elections board explicitly warned against the inclusion of the proposed charter amendment on the April 23 ballot.

Mayor Vincent Gray has also cautioned against moving forward. When the D.C. Council was poised to approve authorizing legislation at the end of December, he sent Council Chairman Phil Mendelson a lengthy letter detailing his opposition.

And Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton is not a fan, either. Though she said she would vote for the referendum on the special election ballot, she has expressed legal reservations and also an insistence that her efforts to reach a budget autonomy deal on Capitol Hill should not be underestimated.

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., in his capacity as chairman of the D.C.-focused Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has become an unlikely champion for the cause, working closely with Norton and the mayor to shepherd budget autonomy legislation through Congress. When Issa endorsed D.C. budget autonomy in the fall of 2011, the movement around the idea spread quickly from one chamber to the other, and even House Republican leadership offered its conditional support.

Norton has argued that the wildfire rapidity of such public reception proves there’s still an opportunity for the realization of budget autonomy in the 113th Congress, especially with Issa opting to move all District matters to the full committee level, rather than relegating them to the docket of a subcommittee.

Others, however, believe that just like in the 112th Congress, there is no way forward for such a bill that doesn’t include policy riders. Over the past year, threats of restrictions on abortion funding and rollbacks of the city’s gun laws have derailed markups and even formal introductions of budget autonomy legislation.

And then there are those who fear the blowback, that Issa’s enthusiasm to help the District could diminish if he felt his efforts were unappreciated on the grass-roots level.

In an interview with CQ Roll Call last month, Issa suggested that the referendum wasn’t offensive to him. He did, however, share concerns about the legality of the initiative and said that it could ultimately hinder his work on behalf of D.C. residents.

“The wishes of the people of the District of Columbia will never alienate me,” Issa said. “It does undermine my ability to get for them what I believe they want … because if it goes to a court challenge, as I am relatively sure it would, then it ties my hand until that’s over with, and that makes no sense.”

Elections Board Public Information Officer Agnes Moss said officials would be releasing a statement in the coming days to explain the board’s decision to place the referendum on the special election ballot in the midst of strong opinions on all sides of the equation.

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