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D.C. Council to consider charter amendment on budget autonomy

- The Washington Times - Monday, October 1, 2012

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson plans to introduce a charter referendum bill on Tuesday that, if passed, will allow city voters to say whether their elected leaders should be able to spend local funds without pre-approval from Congress.

Members of D.C. Vote and D.C. Appleseed say putting D.C. budget autonomy — allowing the city to set its fiscal year and spend local funds without being tied to the federal appropriations process — on a ballot is a good way to work in tandem with bills on Capitol Hill. The bills appear to have broad support yet face opposition from a pro-life lobby that will push hard to attach a ban on locally funded abortions.

The council may authorize a referendum on changes to the District's Home Rule Charter without intervening action by Congress. Because city voters are likely to support the budget autonomy measure, members of Congress would have to disapprove of the voters' action during a 35-day review period through a resolution introduced in both chambers that would also have to go to the president's desk.

President Obama is unlikely to sign such a disapproval resolution if he is re-elected, so D.C. advocates feels they have numerous factors working in their favor, said Ilir Zherka, executive director of D.C. Vote.

He said the referendum is a way for the city and its allies in Congress to push back against a minority of federal lawmakers who have interfered with D.C. budget autonomy bills in the past and would be forced to whip up support for a disapproval resolution.

"I don't think they will," Mr. Zherka said Monday. "I don't think they have the votes to do it."

Plus, they say, any action is a tall order in a deadlocked Congress that cannot seem to agree on anything.

"This is an affirmative step toward self-determination that the District can and should pursue," D.C. Appleseed Executive Director Walter Smith said Monday.

Advocates from both groups have mulled over the referendum proposal for months but were prompted to act now so the measure could be on the ballot in time for a likely special election in the spring. Mr. Mendelson, a Democrat who was appointed chairman in June after former Chairman Kwame R. Brown resigned, is expected to win a special election Nov. 6 to fill the remainder of Brown's term, prompting a special election to fill Mr. Mendelson's vacated at-large seat.

Mr. Mendelson's office confirmed Wednesday the chairman plans to introduce the measure but declined further comment until it is rolled out at Tuesday's legislative meeting.

D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray and other city officials believe they are closer to achieving budget autonomy than ever before. A bill by Rep. Darrell E. Issa, California Republican, set talks in motion late last year but experienced a false start when city officials objected to a legislative rider that would permanently ban locally funded abortions.

Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut independent, introduced a similar bill in the Democrat-controlled Senate. But it stalled when Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, tacked on amendments that would alter the city's abortion and gun laws.

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