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D.C. Budget Referendum About to Become Law

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D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray. (Credit: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray. (Credit: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

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WASHINGTON — An effort by District of Columbia residents to give the city government more control over its municipal budget is about to reach a milestone.

This spring, voters overwhelmingly approved an amendment to the district charter that would allow city leaders to spend local tax revenue without approval by Congress. The measure would allow the local government to keep functioning in the event of a federal shutdown. It would also allow the district to set its own fiscal year. Currently, the city follows the federal calendar, which makes school funding complicated because the fiscal year starts in October.

The review period during which Congress could pass a resolution invalidating the referendum is expected to end this week. No such resolution has been introduced, and it would be unlikely to pass the Senate or be signed by President Barack Obama, who has signaled his support for budget autonomy for the district.

After the review period is over, the referendum will be added to the district charter, although it does not take effect until next year, and there’s still time for it to be overturned in court or by Congress.

Budget autonomy has long been a goal of activists who feel the district should not be in thrall to Congress, where it lacks a voting member. The referendum is the most significant effort to give the city greater independence since a 2009 bill that would have given the district a vote on the House floor. That bill was approved by the Senate, but House Democrats didn’t bring it up for a vote because of an amendment that would have gutted the city’s strict gun-control laws.

“We’re thrilled about this, but we’re cautiously optimistic,” said Kimberly Perry, executive director of DC Vote, one of the groups that pushed for the referendum. “We know that at any time … even after the effective date on Jan. 1, Congress could still take action to overturn the referendum. We’re celebrating, but cautiously.”

Congress has 35 legislative days to pass a disapproval resolution, and there’s uncertainty about how to count those days because the House and Senate received the bill on different dates. But the window is closing.

So far, the only reaction from Congress was included in a recent report by the Republican majority of the House Appropriations Committee, which said it “considers the recent referendum in the district as an expression of the opinion of the residents, only.”

While the committee report has no impact on the referendum, it signals that House Republicans do not believe it has the force of law. The language was endorsed by House Speaker John Boehner.

The most likely scenario for Congress to overturn the bill would be to insert language into a must-pass piece of legislation.

It could also be challenged in court. Mayor Vincent Gray and his attorney general, Irvin Nathan, have expressed concerns about whether the referendum is legal because it takes power away from Congress. But there are questions about who would have standing to bring a lawsuit.

Democrats tend to be more supportive of efforts to give the district greater independence because the city is overwhelmingly Democratic, but budget autonomy has gained some bipartisan support.

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who chairs the committee that oversees the district and supports budget autonomy, is also concerned about whether the referendum will hold up. He would prefer for Congress to grant budget autonomy to the district by passing a bill.

“He remains committed to working with stakeholders on a local budget autonomy solution,” said Ali Ahmad, a spokesman for Issa.

About 70 percent of the district’s nearly $10 billion budget comes from local tax revenue. The district has had more than 15 consecutive years of balanced budgets, dating to the late 1990s, when Congress took over day-to-day operations of the city government.

The city ended last fiscal year with a $417 million surplus, most of which went into its rainy-day fund, and its tax base continues to expand, thanks to a swelling population and a booming commercial real estate market. Gray often calls the city’s finances “the envy of the nation,” and supporters have pointed to the district’s fiscal health in arguing the city has earned the right to spend its own money.

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(© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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