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DC Budget Autonomy Law Goes Into Effect

The District takes a big step forward, but could still hit a snag.

Photograph via Shutterstock.

The District government now has autonomy over its own money, say activists who sponsored an April 2013 ballot referendum that sought to cleave DC’s local budget from the federal appropriations process. The new law, which went into effect at midnight Wednesday, was supported by 83 percent of voters, and survived a 30-day congressional review period last July.

Previously, the District had to wait for Congress to pass an appropriations bill before spending any funds, which left the city’s budget vulnerable to legislative deadlocks. In last October’s shutdown, the District government remained open only after Mayor Vince Gray declared all city employees to be “essential.” Under the new law, though, budgets will be subject to the same month-long review by Congress as any other local bill. About $7 billion of the District’s roughly $10 billion budget comes from tax revenue, with the remainder coming from federal grants.

But the District might not be in the clear yet. Last fall, Representative Anders Crenshaw, a Florida Republican who chairs the appropriations subcommittee that oversaw the District’s budget, requested a ruling from the Government Accountability Office. Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee also released a report last year in which they said the referendum is “as an expression of the opinion of the residents, only,” and should not be considered binding.

Gray and Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton were also skeptical about the referendum’s legality when it was first proposed, but later came around in support.

“The new law changes an illogical budget arrangement with Congress that allowed partisan battles at the federal level to prevent the District from spending local tax revenues on critical needs,” said Kimberly Perry, the executive director of DC Vote, one of the organizations that sponsored the referendum.

Even if the GAO approves the referendum, the real test of whether the District finally has budget autonomy won’t come until the DC Council passes a budget for fiscal 2015 and sends it to Congress. “We’re not really autonomous until we spend our first dollar without congressional review,” says DC Vote spokesman James Jones.

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