Latest in DC budget autonomy case: Briefs are filed, court date is set

Back on April 17, the Council sued Mayor Vincent Gray and Chief Financial Officer Jeffrey DeWitt in an effort to require them to implement a referendum passed by DC voters in November of 2012 by an 83% margin.  The referendum provided for local spending of locally raised tax revenue, without passing through the traditional Congressional appropriation process.

Recently, new briefs were filed by the Council, Mayor Gray and CFO DeWitt, and numerous amicus curiae, in the appeal of the initial District Court ruling in favor of the Defendants.  Links to these briefs, plus a summary of the amicus briefs, are included below.

Additionally, oral argument in the Appeals case has been set for Friday, October 17.  We will continue to keep you updated on this topic.  Below, you will find all of our previous posts on DC Budget Autonomy, including all referenced attachments.

Brief for Plaintiff-Appellant (Council)
Brief for Appellees (Mayor and CFO)
Reply Brief for Plaintiff-Appellant (Council)

Summary of Amicus Briefs

Brief for Law Professors Specializing in Legislation and Statutory Interpretation
Brief for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and Law Professors
Brief for Former Members of Congress and Congressional Staffers
Brief for Local Government Law Professors
Brief for Former D.C. Attorney General Peter J. Nickles
Brief for Concerned DC Legal Professionals
Brief for DC Nonprofit Organizations


Obama Administration once again backs DC budget and legislative autonomy

In a Statement of Administration Policy released July 14 by President Obama's Office of Management and Budget and addressed to the House Appropriations Subcommittee with jurisdiction over the District, the Administration once again expressed its support for DC budget and legislative autonomy.  Specifically, the document singled out the issues of abortion, marijuana, and needle exchanges as topics where Congress should not interfere with how the District spends its local dollars.  The portion of the Statement dealing with the District is included verbatim below. The complete Statement is available here.

Local Budget and Local Legislative Autonomy

The Administration urges the Congress to adopt the provisions requested in the FY 2015 Budget that allow spend its own local taxes and other non-Federal funds without Congressional approval, and that enable local legislation to take effect immediately upon adoption by the District government.

Restrictions on the District's Use of Local Funds

The Administration strongly opposes language in the bill that restricts D.C. from using its local funds for abortion services, undermining the principle of States' rights and of District home rule. Longstanding Federal policy already prohibits Federal funds from being used for abortions, except in cases of rape or incest, or when the life of the woman would be endangered. Similarly, the Administration strongly opposes the language in the bill preventing the District from using its own local funds to carry out locally-passed marijuana policies, which again undermines the principles of States' rights and of District home rule. Furthermore, the language poses legal challenges to the Metropolitan Police Department's enforcement of all marijuana laws currently in force in the District.

Needle Exchange

The Administration strongly opposes the restriction in the bill on the use of Federal funds for the District's needle exchange programs. This is contrary to current law and the Administration's policy to allow the use of funds in locations where local authorities deem needle exchange programs to be effective and appropriate.


The Administration is disappointed that the bill compromises a statutorily-mandated evaluation of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) by requiring that funds be made available to students in the control group of a multi-year, multi-million dollar Department of Education study already underway. This study is critical to evaluating the impact of OSP vouchers on the academic achievement of participating students. The Administration also objects to the bill's reduction of funding for D.C. Tuition Assistance Grants, which would severely limit assistance available to D.C. students attending public colleges across the United States.


Budget Autonomy Act court ruling: Council still optimistic

The Council receives the news of the court’s decision with frustration and disappointment and looks forward to the matter being reconsidered on appeal. Despite the court’s ruling, the judge’s opinion highlights the consensus made recently on an issue that has bedeviled the District since the start of Home Rule.

Our position is that the Budget Autonomy Act was a valid exercise of the power Congress gave to the District to amend our charter, and that it followed the process Congress mandated for such changes. Although we respect Judge Sullivan’s orders, we expect that the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit will review the case with fresh eyes and will carefully examine the compelling legal arguments advanced by pro bono counsel.

Although adversaries in court, the defendants in the case (the Mayor and the Chief Financial Officer), and the Attorney General, who argued their case, join the Council in its support of budget autonomy. And, perhaps most importantly, District voters voiced their support for budget autonomy with an overwhelming 83% vote in November of 2012.  Very few issues unite the District’s leaders and residents as the Council’s push for budget autonomy has.

On the federal level, the President of the United States supports budget autonomy, having argued for it in his past three budget submissions.  And even the House of Representatives’ amicus brief hinted that budget autonomy was inevitable.   

The judge in the case, Emmet G. Sullivan, said in his decision that “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.”  From the bench, he analogized District taxpayers to the American hostages in Iran in 1979, stating that instead of the 444 days the hostages were held, District taxpayers had faced injustice for forty years without budget autonomy.

In spite of what appears to be solid support for budget autonomy, it is disappointing that it is not yet a reality and the Council is committed to pursuing any available pathway toward greater self-determination for District residents.  We believe our action was in the best interest of the citizens of the District of Columbia and remain optimistic because of the now nearly unanimous consensus that budget autonomy is not just morally right, but also increasingly inevitable. 

Judge Emmet G. Sullivan’s opinion is available here.


Get up to Speed on DC Budget Autonomy

Budget autonomy is critical to the District’s future—so critical, in fact, that we have taken the Mayor and CFO to court to fight for it.

The issue is clear: dollars that are raised locally should be allowed to be spent locally without the need for Congressional involvement (although Congress would retain decision-making on federal funds).  The Council, the Mayor, and 83% of District voters are on record supporting this view.

On all but three occasions since 1990, Congress has approved the District’s budget after the fiscal year was already underway.  This creates great difficulty and uncertainty in the District’s budgeting process, and increases short-term borrowing costs.  Additionally, since our schools’ budget year is tied to that of Congress, we are forced to face the costly and illogical situation of having the all-important “back to school” season fall during the very last weeks of their shared fiscal year.

The issue may seem arcane, but it is essential that those in the District and beyond understand it.  Provided below is a one-stop toolkit for understanding the issue of DC budget autonomy.


Lawsuit and Reference Material:

"The Basics"

DC Local Budget Autonomy Act
Committee report on the Act
Text of complaint (lawsuit against the Mayor and CFO)
Budget Office one-pager on budget autonomy

"A Deeper Dive"

DC Home Rule Act (Title IV of which is the District Charter)
GAO Opinion Letter
AG letter to DCBOEE regarding original ballot initiative
DCBOEE ruling on admissibility of budget autonomy initiative

“Extra Credit”

Letter from the Mayor to the Chairman regarding budget autonomy
Letter from the CFO to the Chairman regarding budget autonomy
Antideficiency Act
Budget and Accounting Act of 1921
Amicus brief filed by Anthony Williams, Alice Rivlin, and Tom Davis
Amicus brief filed by DC Vote, DC Appleseed, DC Fiscal Policy Institue, and the League of Women Voters