The Fight for D.C. Budget Autonomy Continues


Last Friday, the longstanding fight for D.C. budget autonomy took another step forward. Here’s where that fight stands now.

As you remember, in May, Mayor Muriel Bowser announced that she would join the D.C. Council in defending the budget autonomy referendum passed overwhelmingly by District residents in 2013. She therefore asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit to throw out the federal District Judge’s decision overturning the referendum–on the ground that the federal court should never have heard the case in the first place. The Court agreed with the Mayor, and sent the case back to the D.C. Superior Court for further proceedings.

The Superior Court is now reviewing papers filed by the Council and the Mayor, who support the referendum, and the CFO, who so far has declined to enforce the referendum on the advice of the D.C. Attorney General.

Numerous Respected Lawyers Have Backed the Referendum

Last Friday, DC Appleseed filed a brief in support of the Mayor and Council. We were joined on our brief by the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, DC Vote, and the League of Women Voters of the District of Columbia. Arent Fox LLP represented us on that brief.

The firm also represented Dr. Alice Rivlin, Congressman Tom Davis, and Mayor Anthony Williams, who filed a brief explaining the strong policy reasons in favor of budget autonomy.

In addition, DC Appleseed boardmember Lorie Masters of Perkins Coie LLP filed a brief on behalf of eight distinguished D.C. attorneys explaining why the Court should uphold the budget autonomy amendment.

Other amici filed five additional briefs, including former D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles, legal scholars in the areas of local government, appropriations, and legislation, and members of Congress who wrote the Home Rule Act.

The Referendum is Good for D.C. and Has a Reasonable Legal Basis

Although these eight amicus briefs support budget autonomy for a variety of reasons, they make two things powerfully clear: it is unquestionable that the budget autonomy referendum is good for the District of Columbia, and it is undeniable that the referendum has a reasonable legal basis.

As those briefs explain, the referendum accomplished something the District has long sought but has long been denied: it gave the District the right to spend its own local revenue as its locally elected officials determine, without an affirmative act of Congress–just like every other state and city in the country. And the referendum became law through the democratic process–it was passed by the Council, approved for the ballot by the Board of Elections, endorsed by 83% of District voters in the referendum, and effectively ratified by Congress itself through the procedure Congress established in the Home Rule Act.

Against this backdrop, it’s difficult to understand why the referendum has been held up in the courts for more than a year–not by opponents of budget autonomy, but by some of the District’s own officials. In our view, this should never have happened, and can still be set right.

Now is the Time for All D.C. Leaders to Support the Referendum

District officials should support policies that advance the interests of District residents, particularly when those policies were adopted by the voters themselves through a referendum. Of course, those policies must have a reasonable legal basis. But it can’t be denied that the referendum has at least a reasonable legal basis, since it has been endorsed by numerous respected lawyers, including the general counsel to the Mayor, the general counsel to the Council, and numerous respected D.C. attorneys.

For these reasons, we hope it may yet be possible for the District’s newly elected Attorney General to join forces with the Mayor and the Council in support of the budget autonomy amendment. Just as Mayor Bowser and her new general counsel disagreed with the former Mayor and his Attorney General on this issue, we think the city’s new Attorney General can now do the same. In fact, there’s an additional reason he should do so–unlike his appointed predecessor, he was elected by the people to defend their interest.

As longtime supporters of the budget autonomy referendum, DC Appleseed would be the first to admit that reasonable arguments can be made against the referendum. In fact, the District’s congressional opponents have done just that.

But at the same time, we firmly believe that reasonable arguments can be made in favor of the referendum. That’s the side we are on. And it’s the side we think our Attorney General and CFO should be on too.

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