Six days after Mayor Vince Gray’s office told DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson’s schedule for passing the city’s 2015 budget would violate federal law and trigger a local government shutdown, the Council took the bait and sued Gray, claiming the District has more autonomy over its budget than the mayor’s office lets on.
The lawsuit, filed Thursday morning in DC Superior Court, stems from letters published last Friday by Gray and District CFO Jeff DeWitt, along with a legal opinion from Attorney General Irv Nathan, stating that the budget autonomy referendum city residents voted for in 2013 is not legally binding.
Since the home rule era began in 1973, DC has sent its budget to the White House Office of Management and Budget, which has then folded it into an appropriations bill to be passed by the Congress. Under the budget autonomy amendment, the District would simply transmit the portion of its budget paid for by local revenue—about 70 percent out of $10.7 billion—to Congress like every other bit of local legislation.
The budget autonomy referendum was approved by 83 percent of voters. While Gray, Nathan, and DeWitt all say they share its aims, they have been at odds with the Council over its legitimacy, saying that only Congress can alter DC’s budget process. Usually, the city’s budget is voted on by the Council and sent to the White House 56 days after the mayor introduces it. But under the schedule Mendelson rolled out earlier this month, the Council is planning on voting on the budget a second time after 72 days and then sending that version to Congress for review.
Mendelson sued after Gray said he would only recognize the Council’s budget vote after 56 days and veto the 72-day version. The Council is being represented pro bono by Boies, Schiller & Flexner LLP, according to the Washington Post, which first reported the lawsuit.
Although Gray, Nathan, and DeWitt laid out a catastrophic scenario if the Council goes ahead as it plans, warning about a shutdown and new control board, some legal observers think they’re being overdramatic.
“That seems pretty far-fetched to me,” says David Super, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center. “I think that the Council is correct. The rules they changed here are of the type of rules they can change.”
Super says another reason Congress might not balk at a District budget that bypasses the usual process is a recent track record of fiscal stability.
“I can’t speculate on what a future Congress might do, but this is completely lawful,” he says. “I suppose if the District were to consistently act foolishly the Congress might reconsider. But the District of late has been producing extremely conservative budgets.”