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As of New Year's Day, D.C. gained a measure of flexibility in spending its own money. But the fight for budget autonomy remains fraught with legal uncertainties — and could be reversed later this month.
In April 2013, 83 percent of D.C. residents voted to amend the city's charter to allow officials to spend money as soon as the D.C. Council passes a budget.
The concept, known as budget autonomy, allows the Council to sidestep the usual procedure of waiting until Congress approves the city's multi-billion dollar local budget, usually many months after local legislators have voted on it.
In a triumphant press release on Jan. 1, pro-autonomy group D.C. Vote celebrated the city's newfound fiscal freedoms.
“The new law changes an illogical budget arrangement with Congress that allowed partisan battles at the federal level to prevent the District from spending local tax revenues on critical needs. Our elected D.C. leaders and residents deserve credit for moving to rescind this unjust process," said Kimberly Perry, the group's director.
With budget autonomy, say advocates, D.C. won't have to worry about future federal government shutdowns closing down D.C. government agencies. Additionally, they say, D.C. will be able to align its fiscal years — it currently has to follow a congressional fiscal year, unlike most local jurisdictions.
But not everyone is celebrating.
How D.C.'s Budget Works
Despite the overwhelming support of D.C. residents, Attorney General Irv Nathan, Mayor Vincent Gray and many congressional Republicans expressed doubts over the ability to gain budget autonomy by simply voting for it. Nathan and Gray both argued that the move has to come from Congress, and Republicans said the referendum represented little more than residents' opinion. (Referendum supporters say that Congress did not formally disapprove of the referendum during 30-day review period, so that means it's lawful.)
Late last year Rep. Ander Crenshaw (R-Fl.) asked that the Government Accountability Office review the referendum's legality. The GAO's legal opinion will be published by the end of the month, says Edda Emmanuelli-Perez, the managing associate general counsel for appropriations law.
In the meantime, D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton has partnered with Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) on a bill allowing D.C. to spend locally raised revenues as soon as they are budgeted. Speaking on The Kojo Nnamdi Show last month, Norton said the bill could come out of committee before the GAO rules on the legality of the referendum.
For the time being, though, the referendum's outcome is moot. As part of the deal to reopen the federal government in October, Congress granted D.C. the right to spend its funds throughout October 2014 regardless of whether the federal government is open or not.