Judge Ruefully Nixes D.C. Budget Autonomy

     WASHINGTON (CN) – A federal judge refused the Council of the District of Columbia’s request for budget autonomy, striking down the city’s Budget Autonomy Act for violating federal law, and handing control of the District’s budget back to a habitually inept Congress.
     The council sued Mayor Vincent Gray and CFO Jeffrey DeWitt after the men refused to implement the law, which was passed in 2012, signed by Gray and ratified by D.C. voters in a 2013 referendum.
     Drawing power from the Home Rule Act of 1973, the council enacted the law to assume authority over its own spending.
     “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,” U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan wrote in a 47-page ruling.
     “Nevertheless, the Court is powerless to provide a legal remedy and cannot implement budget autonomy for the District. Notwithstanding the sound policy preferences of conscientious District lawmakers, members of Congress, and the President, the Court must interpret and apply the law as enacted.”
     According to the ruling, the city has fought for budget autonomy since the 1973 law was enacted, but to no avail.
     “Despite this long history of seeking budget autonomy through Congress, the Council now argues that since the Home Rule Act was enacted in 1973, it has possessed the authority to grant itself control over its own local spending,” the judge wrote. “This argument, which the Council advances for the first time in this litigation, simply cannot withstand judicial scrutiny.”
     The argument, according to Sullivan, is contrary to the Home Rule Act, which prohibits the council from changing the role of the federal government in appropriating the D.C. budget.
     The judge also noted that the Budget Autonomy Act violates federal laws prohibiting city employees from spending public money unless it has been appropriated by Congress.
     Though he ruled against the council, the judge said its arguments are powerful, given the ineptitude of Congress in passing a yearly budget – it’s passed a budget on time only three times in the past 25 years – and the fact that once Congress finally passes a budget, the lengthy appropriations process doesn’t meet the city’s demands.
     “Notwithstanding these challenges, the District has demonstrated an unprecedented track record of fiscal responsibility in recent years, including seventeen balanced budgets, sixteen years of clean financial audits, and a reduction in the federal portion of the District’s budget from over 40 percent to only one percent. The Council makes a compelling argument that the time has come for budget autonomy,” the judge wrote.
     Sullivan declared the autonomy law illegal and dismissed the complaint, but kept hope alive for an autonomous D.C. budget through other means.
     “Although the Council of the District of Columbia, the Mayor, and this Court are powerless to grant to the residents of the District of Columbia the full budget autonomy that they have demanded for almost forty years to spend their revenue collected from their local taxes and fees, the United States Congress and the President of the United States are – without a doubt – empowered to do so,” he concluded.

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