The D.C. Council cast a historic vote today, defying the long-standing grip Congress has held over the city's right to spend locally raised funds in its budget.
The Council's decision to move forward with the implementation of its legal budget for the upcoming fiscal year without first submitting it to Congress for approval comes after a big court ruling a few weeks ago. On May 27, the U.S. Court of Appeals for D.C. granted Mayor Muriel Bowser's motion to dismiss a previous court case between then-Mayor Vince Gray and the D.C. Council.
Despite a voter referendum passed by 83 percent of District voters, the Budget Autonomy Act was held up by Gray and Chief Financial Officer Jeffrey DeWitt last year when they said they're refusing to implement it because it violates federal law. That led to a nasty court battle with the Council. But when Bowser—who stood with the Council on the issue when she was a Councilmember—took office, she filed a motion to dismiss the case's appeal, which was a big win for budget autonomy.
Of course, this isn't the end of the mind-numbingly complicated budget autonomy issue. Far from it. Although the Court of Appeals granted Bowser's motion to dismiss the appeal, the case was sent back to a lower court. And some local lawmakers still doubt the legality of the District's budget autonomy referendum. DeWitt still remains unconvinced, and he's in company with the District's attorney general Karl Racine.
“The D.C. Circuit’s decision in the Budget Autonomy Act case did not validate the legislation," Racine and DeWitt said in a joint statement after the Court of Appeals ruling. "In fact, the appellate court did not address the legality of the Budget Autonomy Act. Because the legality of the Act remains in doubt, the Office of the Chief Financial Officer and the Office of the Attorney General are exploring expedited legal options to obtain judicial clarity on this issue.”
As the Post reports, DeWitt "has maintained that he will need a clear ruling from the courts to go along and issue checks under the version passed Wednesday."
But Council Chairman Phil Mendelson remains optimistic. “This is a seminal day in the history of Home Rule,” Mendelson said in a statement. “The Council’s second vote on our budget is a seemingly routine matter, but in reality is a momentous step in our local autonomy. Arriving at this point has required passage of the Local Budget Autonomy Amendment Act, adoption by voters of a referendum amending our Home Rule Act, and a prolonged legal battle spurred by the Council bringing suit against the Chief Financial Officer and then-Mayor Gray."
Whether or not we'll feel the full effects of budget autonomy is still up in the air, but, as Mendelson says, "while litigation continues, today's vote moves the District forward."