Gray’s D.C Budget Plan Slips in Bid to Control City Spending
||Washington Times (DC)
||Monday, April 9, 2012
D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray is hoping Congress looks the other way when it finds a provision in his budget plan that would allow the District to spend its own money the way it sees fit.
Budget autonomy, or the ability to spend local dollars without waiting for Congress to sign off on the city's budget through its own appropriations process, has been a long-standing priority among city leaders. So in a deft maneuver, Mr. Gray inserted language in his $9.6 billion spending plan for fiscal 2013 that says the District can choose the beginning and ending dates of its fiscal year. It also terminates federal mandates on its local spending.
Council member Mary M. Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat, recently praised the provision as a "clever move" that would force Congress to actively take budget autonomy away from the city instead of deigning to grant it the privilege.
But the District cannot begin its fiscal year on July 1 — a traditional start date for the financial year that does not split up the school year — until at least next year, even if Congress decides not to thwart the Hail Mary plan for budget autonomy. Although the council could pass its Budget Request Act for fiscal 2013 by June 5, the amount of time needed to obtain the mayor's signature and transmit the budget to Congress for a 30-day review period would stretch into the latter half of the year.
Plus, "we would need time to prepare and accumulate the needed reserves," Mr. Gray's spokesman, Pedro Ribeiro, said of switching up the fiscal year. "It's not something you can do overnight."
But the gift of budget autonomy would mark a sea change in how Congress views the District's financial abilities. About a decade after the District shirked the yoke of a financial control board — a period of federal oversight from 1995 to 2001, prompted by years of local mismanagement — the city has been well-received by bond raters in New York City and has been viewed by other municipal managers as a "shining city on the hill," said Natwar M. Gandhi, the city's chief financial officer, in a wide-ranging interview with The Washington Times.
The financial control board, he cautioned, "has not gone away but is dormant."
"Nobody ever wants to go back," he said. "I think the city has earned the right through the record of the last 15 years of fiscal prudence, financially responsible budgeting ... to autonomy on our budget, autonomy on our management."
Leaders on Capitol Hill tend to ignore their local counterparts' wishes for a longer leash when it comes to oversight, but the District has made progress in recent months. Rep. Darrell E. Issa, California Republican, indicated he wants to craft budget-autonomy legislation that is palatable to both House Republicans and the heavily Democratic D.C. government, after city politicians rejected an initial bill that would have imposed a permanent ban on locally funded abortions in the District.
Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican, supported D.C. budget autonomy in February in a letter to Mr. Issa and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican. Mr. McDonnell cited the ill effects a federal shutdown in the nation's capital would have "on the 100,000 Virginians who commute to their jobs in the District."