D.C. Chief Financial Officer Warns Local Budget Autonomy Law Puts Home Rule at Risk

Posted April 11, 2014 at 5:25pm

The District’s Chief Financial Officer, an independent official in charge of all the city’s financial operations, warned the D.C. Council not to proceed with the local budget autonomy law that went into effect on Jan. 1.  

D.C.'s chief financial officer is not a fan of the budget autonomy law. (Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call File Photo.)
D.C.'s chief financial officer is not a fan of the budget autonomy law. (Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call File Photo.)

In a letter to D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, one of the chief proponents of the referendum approved by more than 80 percent of D.C. voters in April 2013, CFO Jeffrey S. DeWitt warned the city could “trigger the re-emergence of the Control Board” or lose the “precious, limited Home Rule currently provided to District residents.”  

DeWitt consulted lawyers in his office and came to the same conclusion reached by D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan and the Government Accountability Office , that although Congress took no action to stop the bill from becoming law during its 35-day congressional review period, the measure is not patently legal. Members of Congress have moved to support budget autonomy for the District. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee advanced a budget autonomy bill in July, sponsored by Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif. Senate appropriator Mark Begich, D-Alaska, who serves as chairman of a subcommittee with jurisdiction over D.C. on Thursday introduced a budget autonomy bill.  

The concept also has the support of President Barack Obama, who has included budget autonomy in his recent budget proposals.  

Supporters of the local budget autonomy law point to those actions as evidence that there is plenty of federal support for unchaining the District’s spending plan from the congressional appropriations process.  

Taken together, those actions “speak even stronger to the fact that the only thing in the way [of budget autonomy] is our attorney general and our mayor,” DC Vote Executive Director Kimberly Perry said in an interview.  

House appropriators weighed in on the budget autonomy proposal in their report on fiscal 2014 spending, saying the local law was only an opinion. According to Mayor Vincent Gray’s administration, Congress has made it perfectly clear that it views its fiscal relationship with the District as unchanged.  

Rep. Ander Crenshaw, R-Fla., chairman of the subcommittee controlling the D.C. spending bill, did not respond to requests for comment by press time. Neither did House Appropriations staff.  

Gray is urging Mendelson to comply with the CFO’s opinion, rather than standing up to Congress, though he said in a Friday letter that he does “believe deeply that Congress should grant the District budget autonomy and should do so as soon as possible.”  

Gray says it is his duty as mayor to ensure D.C. complies with federal law.  

“We have come too far to jeopardize out ability to keep the District functioning if the federal government shuts down again,” Gray wrote. “I urge the Council to be responsible and enact a valid budget for the protection of the District.”  

Mendelson told CQ Roll Call that the letter comes as no surprise, the arguments are not new and the Council is intent on following the timeline required by the local budget autonomy law. He added that he’s been talking to Gray administration officials and the CFO and felt “optimistic we’re going to find a way to work this out.”