D.C. voters approved a referendum granting the city budget autonomy in April 2013, but Mayor Vincent Gray is worried about how it will affect the 2015 budget.
A conflict between the D.C. Council and Mayor Vincent Gray over whether or not the city now enjoys budget autonomy is heading to court, and a ruling could have an impact on how this year's budget process plays out.
The Council is filing suit today over last year's budget autonomy referendum, in which 83 percent of D.C. residents voted to amend the city's Home Rule Charter to allow the city more control over its locally raised funds.
In the lawsuit, which was first reported by The Washington Post, the Council claims that budget autonomy — the right to enact a local budget without first submitting it to the president and Congress for approval — is the law of the land, and has shaped the timeline for consideration of the 2015 budget around that.
Mayor Vincent Gray, Attorney General Irv Nathan and CFO Jeffrey DeWitt disagree, and warned last week that the Council could risk a local government shutdown or even the return of the Control Board if it doesn't submit the budget to President Obama within a prescribed 56-day timeline.
In February, the Government Accountability Office opined that the referendum had no legal effect. In a letter to Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, Gray said that he worries of the consequences if the Council proceeds under the assumption that budget autonomy is law.
"I believe deeply that Congress should grant that District budget autonomy and should do so as soon as possible," he wrote last week. "At the same time, I must take seriously my responsibility as Mayor of this great city to ensure that the District government complies in all respects with the governing federal law, including in connection with its budget and finances.
Council attorneys and budget autonomy proponents argue that the referendum was approved by voters and signed into law by Gray, effectively binding the legislature to the changes made to the charter.
"The truth is, local budget autonomy is now the law. It was passed by the Council, it was passed by the people, it was not overturned by Congress. It's the law, and it governs the attorney general, the mayor and the CFO," says Walter Smith of the D.C. Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, which came up with the idea of putting budget autonomy to the voters through a referendum.
The legal battle between Gray and the Council will have to be resolved by May 28, the last day of the 56-day period during which Gray and Nathan say the Council has to finalize the budget for submission to the president.
Gray officials say they are happy to have a judge determine what's lawful and what's not.
"We welcome this opportunity to definitively settle this matter, and will work with the Council and its lawyers to ensure that the decision comes as quickly as possible so we can move forward on the FY 2015 budget," says Pedro Ribeiro, Gray's spokesperson.
"While we all agree that the District deserves full budget and legislative autonomy, we are confident that the court will side with the legal opinions of the District’s Attorney General, the District’s Chief Financial Officer, and the Government Accountability Office," he adds.
And despite the fact that the matter has ended up in court, officials on both sides, along with D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, say that the legal fight isn't adversarial.
"The Mayor and the Council each have felt compelled to take decisive action to clarify an unprecedented legal situation, rather than incur the risks associated with the continuing uncertainty. However, there should be no mistaking the Council’s action for the usual adversarial lawsuit," she said. "Today’s action is friendly litigation and a classic use of the declaratory judgment vehicle."