Wednesday, June 10, 2015
Media Source: 
WAMU Radio (DC)
Martin Austermuhle

The D.C. Council on Wednesday cast a historic second vote on its budget, pushing forward under the assumption that the city is now free from some of the usual strictures imposed by Congress when it comes to spending local funds. But that assumption remains in question, prompting the Council to adopt a two-track process to ensure that it is left with a legal budget for the coming fiscal year.

The second vote came as part of the 2013 referendum approved by 83 percent of D.C. voters that grants the city what's known as "budget autonomy," or the right to spend its more money with less congressional oversight.

Under the Home Rule Act approved by Congress in 1973, the D.C. budget is voted on once by the Council and submitted to the White House, after which it is sent to Congress as part of the federal budget. That arrangement has long irked local officials, who say that it leaves the city's local budget victim to partisan fights over federal spending — many of which have resulted in delayed budgets or even government shutdowns.

But the referendum changed that process, allowing the Council to take two votes and submit the local portion of the budget directly to Congress, where it goes through a shorter 30-day review period, like all legislation passed by the Council. (The portion of the budget that includes federal dollars would still go through the old process.) That would allow the budget to take effect on Oct. 1, the start of the fiscal year, irregardless of what happens with the federal budget.

Despite the broad support for budget autonomy in D.C., the legality of the referendum has provoked a court fight that remains unsettled. While a federal court tossed out the referendum last year, on May 27 — the same day the Council took a first vote on the budget — the U.S. Court of Appeals sent the case back to a lower court.

Budget autonomy advocates — including the Council — celebrated the decision, calling it evidence that the referendum is now the law of the land. But Jeffrey DeWitt, the city's Chief Financial Officer, and Attorney General Karl Racine have remained unconvinced, saying that no court has yet ruled on the merits of the case. Until one does, they say they believe the referendum was an improper way to achieve budget autonomy.

Despite the ongoing legal fight, the Council moved forward with the second vote on Wednesday. But it is also following the usual process — submitting the budget to the White House — to ensure that if a court rules against the referendum in the coming months, the city won't be left without a legal budget as the 2016 fiscal year starts.

It also doesn't have much of a choice. Because it had already cast one vote on the 2016 budget — which includes both local and federal dollars — it has to send the full package to the White House this year, since there's no means for legislators to separate out the federal portion.

On Wednesday, Council Chairman Phil Mendelson reassured his colleagues that the budget will be safe, no matter what a court does — or does not — conclude on the legality of the 2013 referendum.

"Nothing that we do will put the District at risk in terms of the government being able to operate on Oct. 1," he said.

Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), a constitutional law professor, said on Tuesday that while she's comfortable with how the Council has opted to proceed, a court ruling will help bring clarity ahead of next year's budget process.

"If the case stays alive and there is a declaratory judgement by a court about the legality of the budget autonomy act, then we'll act in accordance with that. If there's not... let's say there is no court judgement and we go forward, we're OK for this year, what do we do next year? Do we have to go through the same process to make sure we're not caught in the end?" she said.