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In Budget, Obama Backs D.C. On Pot, Abortion And Budget Autonomy

President Obama is siding with D.C. in its fight with congressional Republicans over a voter-approved measure to legalize the possession of marijuana.
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President Obama is siding with D.C. in its fight with congressional Republicans over a voter-approved measure to legalize the possession of marijuana.

It only took adding a single word, but President Obama is siding with D.C. in its fight with congressional Republicans over a voter-approved measure to legalize the possession of marijuana and the provision of abortions to women who can't afford to pay for them.

In the $4 trillion 2016 federal budget unveiled today, Obama specifies that while federal funds given to D.C. cannot be used to drop penalties on marijuana or pay for abortions for low-income women, the city would remain free to use its locally raised revenue to do both.

The change in the wording of the two budget provisions is small — it required only adding the word "federal" — though significant.

The majority of the city's budget comes from local sources, though the federal government does pay for the operations of the court system. Still, Congress retains control over D.C., allowing it to prohibit the city from spending money on certain programs, even if that money was raised from local residents.

D.C. officials and women's advocates have long complained of a longstanding prohibition imposed by congressional Republicans on the use of both local and federal funds to pay for abortions, saying it infringes upon both a women's reproductive rights and the city's decisions on how to use money raised from its residents.

The issue has been a flashpoint between D.C. and Obama in the past. During budget negotiations in 2011, Obama conceded to a demand from Speaker of the House John Boehner that D.C. be prohibited from using any funds — local or federal — on abortions, prompting complaints and protests from city leaders.

As for marijuana, the change in wording would reverse a move made by Republicans in a December spending bill that stops D.C. from using any money — whether local or federal — to legalize marijuana. That provision has imperiled a voter-approved measure that legalizes the possession of less than two ounces of marijuana, and has put a halt on a bill before the D.C. Council that would legalize retail sales of the drug.

"It's great to see the president taking this subtle but important action to clear the way for the District to sensibly regulate marijuana," says Tom Angell, chairman of Marijuana Majority, a group that backs liberalizing marijuana laws.

As part of his proposed spending plan, Obama also backs the city's request that it be allowed to spend its money as soon as it completes its budget, instead of having to wait until Congress reviews the city's budget and incorporates it into the federal budget.

Obama's proposed budget would also allow D.C. to set its own fiscal year. Currently, it operates on the federal fiscal year running from October to September, unlike many cities and municipalities that follow a fiscal year running from July to June. D.C. officials have said that working on the federal fiscal schedule has made local budgeting more difficult.

It remains unclear, though, if any of the changes will survive the Republican-dominated Congress. In years past, the GOP has reversed similar moves by Obama on abortion funding, as well as rebuffed the effort to grant the city budget autonomy. Still, some Republican leaders have said that they would be open to freeing D.C. to spend its own money after the city's budget is approved by the Council.

Obama's budget also includes $24.3 million for the construction of a network of tunnels under the Potomac and Anacostia rivers to collect and store stormwater runoff. It also has $9.8 million to create a Research and Development Innovation Center on the East Campus of St. Elizabeths, $6 million for the construction of transitional housing units for homeless families, $1 million to expand a solar power initiative for local homes, and $1 million for a strategic plan for regional mass transit innovation.

The proposed budget also sets aside $750,000 for a "climate change adaptation plan to identify climate risks to the District of Columbia, vulnerabilities, and mitigation options."

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