News & Politics

DC Possibly Headed for Budget Meltdown, Mayor Gray Warns

Vince Gray and other top city officials are warning the DC Council that the process for the city's budget could result in a shutdown or a control board.

Photograph via Shutterstock.

Barely six months after the District steered its way through a federal shutdown, Chief Financial Officer Jeffrey DeWitt warns that the city may shut itself down if it doesn’t adopt a budget properly.

More worrisome, according to Mayor Vince Gray and DeWitt, is that the city’s failure to pass a valid budget would trigger the return of the Control Board.

A little backstory: Last April, DC voters approved a budget autonomy amendment, aimed at casting off congressional oversight on DC’s local funds. Since then, though 83 percent of voters supported the amendment and Congress did not explictly reject it, DC’s legislative and executive branches have been at odds whether it is legally binding.

In a letter to DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, DeWitt says it’s not, and that circumventing the federal appropriations process would put the city in violation of the Anti-Deficiency Act, a federal statute that prevents the spending of money that has not been authorized.  (The law, which has never produced a conviction in its 130 years on the books, was in vogue last fall when Gray pledged to keep the District government open during the federal shutdown.)

DeWitt’s letter also informs Mendelson that if the council doesn’t go through the traditional channels and does not have an approved budget when the new fiscal year begins October 1, the city’s finances would once again be subjugated to an independent federal panel.

Gray, who published his budget for the 2015 fiscal year last week, wants the Council to follow the normal procedure of holding a vote within 56 days—that would be May 29—and sending it on to the White House. But Mendelson indicates he’s planning two votes, in accordance with the budget autonomy amendment’s goal of treating the city budget like any other piece of local legislation.

Gray says that’s no good. In his own letter to Mendelson, Gray says that even if Mendelson schedules a second vote, he will veto that budget and submit the version passed after 56 days.

The letters from Gray and DeWitt were accompanied by a legal opinion from DC Attorney General Irv Nathan, who has long said the budget autonomy amendment does not hold up, although Nathan writes that budget autonomy is a goal he “wholeheartedly” endorses. 

Mendelson was unavailable after Gray’s office. Nathan briefed reporters, but DC Vote, one of the organizations that sponsored the 2013 amendment, calls the letters “deeply disappointing” and says Mendelson is doing the right thing.

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.