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A federal judge today ruled that the April 2013 D.C. budget autonomy referendum was unlawful, giving Mayor Vincent Gray a victory in what has become an internecine fight over how the city could gain more flexibility in spending its own money.
In the ruling, Judge Emmet Sullivan wrote that while he sympathizes with the cause of budget autonomy, only Congress can make changes to the city's Home Rule Charter that would allow lawmakers to spend local funds with less congressional oversight.
"Both Congress and the President have expressed their support for budget autonomy for the District, but have failed to act to achieve that goal. Congress has plenary authority over the District, and it is the only entity that can provide budget autonomy," he wrote.
In April 2013, 83 percent of D.C. residents voted in favor of the referendum, which would amend the city's charter to allow lawmakers to appropriate local funds with only passive congressional review. Currently, the D.C. Council passes a budget which is then sent to the president and submitted to Congress, which passes the local spending plan as part of the larger federal budget.
City officials have long complained that the arrangement makes budgeting difficult, and leaves D.C. subject to federal government shutdowns. Congress has never acted to give the city more flexibility in spending its $6 billion in local funds, despite the fact that the cause has received support from members of both parties.
Given the lack of movement on the issue, advocates promoted the idea of a referendum to change the city's charter. But despite supporting the broader cause of budget autonomy, Gray opposed the referendum, saying that it violated federal law and could put city officials in legal jeopardy if they spend money not properly appropriated by Congress.
In early April, he warned the Council not to pass the 2015 budget under the pretense that budget autonomy was the law of the land; the following week the Council asked a federal judge to settle the matter.
In his ruling, Sullivan echoes the arguments made by Gray: While budget autonomy as a political argument may have merit, the referendum as a legal tactic did not.
"As a native Washingtonian, the Court is deeply moved by Plaintiff’s argument that the people of the District are entitled to the right to spend their own, local funds. Nevertheless, the Court is powerless to provide a legal remedy and cannot implement budget autonomy for the District," he wrote.
In a statement, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said that he was disappointed by Sullivan's decision but had not settled on whether an appeal would be filed. If he does choose to appeal, time will not be on his side: The Council is set to cast a first vote on the 2015 budget next week.
"I am disappointed by the court’s decision. I continue to believe there is strong justification for the law that we passed — which received overwhelming approval by voters in a 2013 referendum and has not been challenged by Congress," he said.
“I am frustrated by the result, but will withhold comment today on whether we will appeal. Obviously, we will want to read the court’s opinion," he added.
President Obama has included budget autonomy provisions in his budget for the upcoming year, and various bill have been introduced on Capitol Hill that would give lawmakers the spending flexibility they seek.
In a statement, Gray promised to continue fighting for budget autonomy.
“Today’s ruling is bittersweet, because there is no fiercer advocate for budget autonomy in the District of Columbia than me. However, given the concerns I have continually expressed, I’m not surprised by the ruling. As I have said all along, we need to gain the freedom to spend our own money legally," he said.
Update, 10:45 a.m.: The D.C. Council's general counsel has said that an appeal will be filed with the D.C. Circuit.
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