Court stymies latest Washington D.C. try at budget independence

Reuters News
Posted: May 19, 2014 3:45 PM

By Lisa Lambert

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Washington, D.C. will have to find a new front in its battle for budget independence from the Congress after a district court judge on Monday decided the country's capital city cannot by law decide how to spend its revenues.

As a native of Washington, District Judge Emmet Sullivan said he was "deeply moved" by the argument that "the people of the District are entitled to the right to spend their own, local funds." But he added he was "powerless to provide a legal remedy and cannot implement budget autonomy for the District."

A city without a state, Washington must have its budget approved by Congress each year. In the 1990s, when the District fell into perpetual financial crisis, the federal government stepped in with a five-member "control board" to bring its budget into order.

The board disbanded in 2001. Since then, as the District has flourished economically and reined in its finances, residents have pushed for greater autonomy. Automobile license plates issued by the District all carry the motto "Taxation without representation," a pointed takeoff of the colonists' slogan against British rule in the 1700s of "No taxation without representation."

Recent budget impasses in Congress have stoked local frustration. The city budget is usually approved as a pro forma step in passing the federal budget.

In April 2013 voters approved a referendum giving Washington the right to spend its local tax and fee revenue without Congressional approval. When Mayor Vincent Gray and the District's Chief Financial Officer, Jeffrey DeWitt, both refused to execute the law, the city council sued. Sullivan, though, said he would not compel them to carry out the legislation.

"I am frustrated by the result, but will withhold comment today on whether we will appeal. Obviously, we will want to read the court's opinion," said the council's chairman, Phil Mendelson, in a statement. "The court's decision will not deter the council from continuing to push for budget autonomy through other avenues."

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President Barack Obama has said the city should have more control over its budget, as has Gray.

"Today's ruling is bittersweet, because there is no fiercer advocate for budget autonomy in the District of Columbia than me. However, given the concerns I have continually expressed, I'm not surprised by the ruling. As I have said all along, we need to gain the freedom to spend our own money legally," Gray said in a statement.

The council had argued that the Home Rule Act of 1973 gave the city authority over its budget, but Sullivan said language in the act "prohibits the council from changing the role of the federal government in the appropriation of the total budget of the District."

(Editing by Chris Reese)