Council Defends Budget Autonomy (updated)

Seeking to uphold the law – passed by the Council, signed by the Mayor, ratified by 83% of District voters, and passively approved by Congress – the Council of the District of Columbia filed suit this morning against the District’s Mayor and Chief Financial Officer.  The suit asserts that the local Budget Autonomy Act is valid, and asks the court to order the Mayor and CFO to comply with the law.

“The Council has a strong legal case,” stated Council Chairman Phil Mendelson.  “We’re willing to test our arguments in court.  We think we’ll win, and when we do, the District wins.”

Numerous District officials and finance experts support budget autonomy – including the Mayor, CFO, and Attorney General.  Under budget autonomy, the District government is able to spend locally raised revenue without affirmative congressional action.  All federal funding decisions, such as for the courts and certain discretionary programs, would remain with Congress.  With budget autonomy, the District is no longer vulnerable to federal government shutdowns and late appropriations by Congress – which has adopted the District’s annual budget before the start of the fiscal year only three times since 1990.  Moreover, the District is able to align its fiscal year with the school year – as almost every city, county, and state does.  This, in turn, means both better revenue forecasting to support the budget, and reduced short-term borrowing costs.

However, last week the Mayor and CFO announced they will refuse to implement any budget adopted pursuant to the Budget Autonomy Act, and that their decisions were based on an assessment by Attorney General Irvin Nathan that the statute is invalid.

“The effect of their actions would be to leave us stuck in the status quo,” said Mendelson, “waiting for a Congress that has been unable to act on this issue despite a decade of support from leaders of both parties in both houses.  The quickest way to resolution is through the courts.”

The Council has retained Karen L. Dunn, a partner with the law firm Boies Schiller & Flexner LLP, and Brian D. Netter, a partner with the firm Mayer Brown, LLP, on a pro bono basis to represent the Council in litigation related to the Budget Autonomy Act.

“In the course of preparing the suit we file today, we spoke to numerous legal scholars and experts who agreed that the Budget Autonomy Act is valid,” said attorney Dunn.  “By contrast, the Executive’s position fails to take into account several key arguments based in the Constitution’s Appropriations Clause and federal budget laws.”

“Once the Mayor and CFO announced their refusal to follow the law, we knew we had to move quickly to get this issued resolved as soon as possible,” said attorney Netter.  “Swift action by the court is in everyone’s interest and will make it possible for the District to avoid any fiscal disruption.”