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Federal Judge Rules Against DC Budget Autonomy

The District’s 2013 ballot referendum claiming budget autonomy from Congress didn’t hold up in court.
DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson is appealing the decision. Photograph by Flickr user Tommy Wells.

The District government’s budget will have to be approved by Congress as always, a federal judge ruled in striking down the city’s attempt to claim budget autonomy for itself. The ruling, issued Monday morning, keeps the city’s funding under the aegis of the federal appropriations process, and delivers a painful blow to advocates behind a 2013 ballot referendum that attempted to change the process by which DC’s budget is enacted.

Judge Emmet G. Sullivan’s decision is a defeat for DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, who sued Mayor Vince Gray and DC Chief Financial Officer Jeff DeWitt after they said that following the referendum’s language could inadvertently lead to a local government shutdown. The referendum called for the District transmit its budget to Congress for review like any other piece of city legislation, rather than to the White House Office of Management and Budget, which then folds it into a larger appropriations bill. Gray and DeWitt argued that by ignoring the appropriations process, the city would not be authorized to spend any money on its operations.

Attorneys representing the Council argued with Attorney General Irv Nathan in federal district court last week, and while Judge Emmet G. Sullivan was sympathetic to the Council’s position, he reminded the plaintiffs he “can’t rule from the heart.”

That sentiment is apparent in Sullivan’s opinion today.

“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,” Sullivan wrote. “Nevertheless, the Court is powerless to provide a legal remedy and cannot implement budget autonomy for the District.”

Mendelson is appealing the ruling, but he’ll have to abide by the usual budget process for the time being. The Council is scheduled to take the first of its two votes on the fiscal 2015 budget on May 28.

“I am disappointed by the court’s decision,” Mendelson says in a press release. “I continue to believe there is strong justification for the law that we passed—which received overwhelming approval by voters in a 2013 referendum and has not been challenged by Congress.”

Read Sullivan’s ruling below:

DC Budget Autonomy lawsuit opinion

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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.