It’s Time to Claim Budget Autonomy

The District has patiently attempted every conceivable strategy to achieve the right to budget autonomy–the right of District residents to decide for themselves how to spend their locally raised tax dollars.

District officials have worked for decades on Capitol Hill to get a budget autonomy bill, but Congress could not pass it despite bipartisan support.

D.C. voters then overwhelmingly ratified an amendment to the District charter establishing local budget autonomy, but the District’s previous Attorney General fought it in the federal courts.

And after the court decision overturning the referendum was vacated and the Mayor and Council were able at long last to implement the local budget autonomy law, Congress simply ignored that law–even though it became binding through the review process Congress itself established.

In fact, Congress not only ignored the budget autonomy law, but in the recently-passed omnibus appropriations act for fiscal year 2016, Congress once again attached riders  prohibiting the District from using its own money on abortion for low-income women and enacting a regulatory regime for legal marijuana.

District officials should no longer stand for this–not when there’s another way to claim democracy for the District and vindicate the will of District voters.

As we’ve explained before, the only thing the recently-passed congressional riders do is prevent the District from using its current fiscal year 2016 appropriation to pay for the prohibited activities. The riders do not prevent the District from paying for those activities with other funds–such as the District’s substantial contingency reserves.

Since the reserve funds have already been appropriated in previous years, the District is free to use them for activities otherwise prohibited in the current year’s appropriation.

This is exactly what the District did when Congress failed to pass an appropriation act in the fall of 2013, leading to a federal shutdown. The District did not shut down because it used its reserves to pay for it activities. It can and should do the same now to pay for activities that the people and their elected representatives clearly favor.

The amount of dollars needed from the reserves to pay for the low-income abortions and to establish a marijuana regime is quite small. Yet the importance for health, safety, and D.C. democracy is huge. It is a step D.C. officials should take. It is time, at long last, to claim budget autonomy for the city.

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