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Commentary: New Effort For D.C. Budget Autonomy The Right Approach

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For many years, local District advocates have been engaged in efforts to advance democracy for the people of the District of Columbia. That includes D.C. budget autonomy — which involves the right of District residents to determine for themselves how to spend their own locally raised revenue, without waiting long periods for Congressional approval.

There is good reason to afford the District such budget autonomy. After all, Congress almost always eventually enacts the District's local budget exactly as proposed, and the District has balanced its budget every year since 2001, accumulating cash reserves and dramatically improving its credit rating. Delays in Congress add several months to the local budget process and undermine the reliability of the District's revenue and expenditure estimates.

In spite of all this, District officials have not been able to get legislation passed in Congress to give the District budget autonomy. While efforts to obtain that legislation should continue, the referendum proposed by Chairman Mendelson this week should be pursued as well. His proposal is the right approach at the right time for several reasons.

First, it takes advantage of a little-known Home Rule Charter provision that allows the Council to amend the Charter through referenda. Under that same provision, the Council and D.C. voters two years ago made the D.C. Attorney General elected rather than appointed.

Second, the referendum is a vehicle for directly engaging the people of the District in their fight for democracy. Their support for the referendum would send a highly visible signal to the Congress about how strongly they feel about the need for budget autonomy.

And third, Congress itself has made it difficult to overturn the referendum once passed by the people. Under the Home Rule Act, Congress can overturn it only if both Houses pass a disapproval resolution that is signed by the President. And all that has to happen within 35 legislative days after the referendum is sent to the Hill.

For all these reasons, I welcome Chairman Mendelson's budget autonomy proposal is a welcome addition to the District's democracy strategy.  I hope it will permit the people of the District to make their voices heard on this important issue in a referendum next spring.

Walter Smith is the executive director of DC Appleseed, which supports D.C. Council chair Phil Mendelson's legislation to establish budget autonomy from Congress.

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