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Federal Judge Strikes Down D.C. Budget Autonomy Law

A federal judge struck down the District’s budget autonomy law on Monday, ruling that the city does not have the right to spend its local revenues without seeking an annual appropriation from Congress.  

U.S. District Judge Emmett G. Sullivan acknowledged that the policy arguments for budget autonomy are “extraordinarily powerful,” but the argument that the Home Rule Act of 1973 gives D.C. the authority to grant itself control over its own local spending “simply cannot withstand judicial scrutiny.”  

Ultimately, the authority to grant D.C. budget autonomy lies with Congress, Sullivan found. His ruling reflected statements made from the bench on May 14, when both sides argued their case .  

The ruling was a blow for D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, who was hoping the courts would validate the law and force Mayor Vincent Gray and Jeffrey S. DeWitt, the city’s Chief Financial Officer, to comply with the voter-approved amendment to the District’s charter.  

“I am frustrated by the result, but will withhold comment today on whether we will appeal,” Mendelson said in a statement Monday morning. “Obviously, we will want to read the court’s opinion.”  

Sullivan determined that the radical route to attaining budget autonomy cannot be reconciled with the legislative history of the Home Rule Act, under which Congress has considered and rejected budget autonomy laws. Similar to the argument put forth in a House GOP-backed amicus brief in the case, the judge found that recent efforts to pass a budget autonomy bill on Capitol Hill undercut the law’s validity.  

The court’s ruling also aligned with a January legal opinion by the Government Accountability Office that found the law would violate the federal Anti-Deficiency Act, which prohibits District employees from spending public money unless it has been appropriated by Congress.  

Advocates indicated the fight was not over.  

“Despite today’s decision, efforts by several members of Congress and the President’s own budget proposal seek to provide the District with the autonomy to spend our own local revenue,” Mendelson said. “The court’s decision will not deter the Council from continuing to push for budget autonomy through other avenues.”  

DC Vote advocates are blaming the Gray administration for thwarting budget autonomy efforts.  

“Unfortunately, it is still difficult to comprehend that a Mayor who has been the city’s strongest advocate for greater autonomy continues to lead a concerted legal campaign to derail the most significant advance in Home Rule in 40 years,” the group said in a statement.  

“Even the Congress has refrained from taking action to overturn the will of DC voters.”

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