District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser and the D.C. Council scored a victory Wednesday in the ongoing court case surrounding a law granting D.C. more control over its local budget.
On the same day the D.C. Council debated the District’s budget, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit granted Bowser’s motion to dismiss the case’s appeal, which centered around a dispute between the D.C. Council and Bowser’s predecessor, Vincent Gray. Gray believed that the Budget Autonomy Act was illegal, pitting him against the D.C. Council in court. But since Bowser believes it is legal, the court ruled that the case is moot. For some activists and D.C. officials, the decision means the act could take effect this year.
Bowser lauded the decision as the “biggest victory for District autonomy” since the end of the congressionally established financial control board that governed the District in the late 1990s.
“Budget Autonomy will free the District from much of the uncertainty of the current appropriations process,” Bowser said in a statement. “For decades we have been subject to the whims of Congress and delays on Capitol Hill that have threatened the day-to-day operations of the District. Today’s victory marks a significant milestone in our continuing fight for self-government.”
News broke about the decision as the council deliberated the budget. “I think it would be great for us to move forward this year and not send this [budget] to Congress,” said At-Large Councilman David Grosso as he informed his fellow legislators about the decision.
The Budget Autonomy Act would give the District more control over its locally raised funds by decoupling its budget from the federal appropriations process. However, Congress would still be able to review the District’s budget.
In 2013, the council passed the act and more than 80 percent of D.C. voters approved it in a referendum. The act also passed the congressional review period, and essentially took effect, but the D.C. executive and legislative branches disagreed on its legality, which sparked the court battle.
Gray and then-Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan argued the act could not move forward because Congress has control over D.C.’s budget. Last year, a judge sided with Gray and Nathan and struck down the budget autonomy law, but the council appealed the decision, which was the case currently in front of the appeals court.
In March, Bowser argued the appeal is moot because she agrees with the council that the Budget Autonomy Act is legal. However, her position is in contras t with D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine, and Chief Financial Officer Jeffrey S. DeWitt, who is the other party in the case.
“Our position has not changed. If a court rules that the budget autonomy act is legal we will happily comply but right now we’re back where we all started,” CFO spokesman David Umansky said in a Wednesday phone interview. Umansky said the office’s lawyers are working to determine the next steps.
So it is possible that the case is not over. The Court of Appeals sent the case back to the local D.C. Superior Court, siding with the D.C. Council, which filed a brief in April that the case should be decided in local, not federal, court.
The question is whether the Superior Court will take up the dispute. Brian Netter, the D.C. Council’s outside counsel, explained that the court will have to decide if there is a live dispute to consider. Because the CFO’s disagreement with the act might not be relevant until after the Council actually passes a budget under the act, the court could decide not to take up the dispute until then.
“The bottom line is this development is a big win for the Council and the mayor and for those D.C. rights advocates who believe in budget autonomy,” Netter said.
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