WASHINGTON — One branch of District of Columbia government sued another Thursday over how best to achieve a goal that both sides agree on: the ability of the city to spend its local tax dollars without authorization by Congress.
The D.C. Council and Mayor Vincent Gray office both support what’s known as budget autonomy. City leaders say they’ve earned the right to spend their own tax dollars after nearly 20 years of prudent fiscal management, arguing the requirement that the budget be submitted to Congress is unjust and causes needless complications.
But Gray’s office believes the city must continue to push Congress to pass a bill granting the district control over its own budget. The council thinks the city already has that authority — thanks to a referendum that voters approved in 2012 and was added to the city charter after Congress didn’t intervene.
On Thursday, the council filed a lawsuit in D.C. Superior Court against the mayor and the chief financial officer that seeks to force them to enforce the law.
“The council has a strong legal case,” Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said. “We’re willing to test our arguments in court. We think we’ll win, and when we do, the district wins.”
The Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, said in an opinion in January that the budget autonomy law has “no legal effect.” In response, the mayor and the CFO said they would submit the budget to Congress as usual.
Roughly two-thirds of the city’s nearly $11 billion budget comes from local tax dollars.
Federal law treats the district budget essentially like a federal agency, and by spending money without authorization from Congress, the city would violate the Antideficiency Act, a law dating to the 19th century that prevents federal agencies or employees from spending money they don’t have, the GAO wrote.
There is bipartisan support in Congress to grant the city budget autonomy, but a bill introduced by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., has not reached the House floor.
Pedro Ribeiro, a spokesman for Gray, said in a statement that the mayor was confident the court would side with those who believe the referendum is invalid, but added, “we all agree that the district deserves full budget and legislative autonomy.”
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat who represents the district in Congress, said the council and the mayor were both attempting “to clarify an unprecedented legal situation.”
“Today’s action is friendly litigation,” she said.
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