The D.C. government has enough money remaining in its contingency reserve fund to pay workers for about a week if the federal shutdown continues, but with no agreement in sight officials are scrambling to find other ways they can ensure employees are paid.
City attorneys are reviewing documents related to the District's other cash reserves to determine whether accounts can legally be used on such expenses, according to the mayor's spokesman.
"We are in uncharted legal territory. We are operating under a situation where there is a lot of gray area," said Pedro Ribeiro, spokesman for D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray. "Attorneys have to go back and look at all the documents that created these accounts."
Some accounts are "ironclad" bound to certain expenditures, such as one fund created solely to pay interest on bonds, Mr. Ribeiro said.
In the days before the shutdown, Mr. Gray declared all city employees essential and outlined a plan to pay them through the city's $144 million reserve fund. Officials made payroll this week but worry they will not have the funds to pay employees on the next payday at the end of the month.
Another proposal being vetted is the notion of moving forward the implementation date of a charter amendment, passed by voters in April, that would allow the city to spend its own tax dollars without congressional approval. The proposal was made by D.C.-based think tank D.C. Appleseed — which previously advocated for the District to use its contingency cash reserve fund during the shutdown.
D.C. Appleseed executive director Walter Smith said he met with D.C. Council chairman Phil Mendelson to discuss the proposal Friday.
"If D.C. leaders act quickly and decisively — as they have throughout the shutdown — there's time to put the Charter Amendment and the local budget into effect within days," Mr. Smith wrote on the think tank's website.
Currently, the soonest the charter amendment could take effect is Jan. 1. But Mr. Smith said legal analysis shows the D.C. Council could vote to move up the date, allowing the city to spend funds even if the shutdown continues.
Mr. Mendelson did not respond to a request for comment Monday, but thus far the mayor's office is skeptical of the plan.
"Their latest idea, while it is very creative — unfortunately judges don't rule on creativity. They rule on legality," Mr. Ribeiro said. "There is no attorney in the government who thinks it's a plausible idea."
Mr. Smith countered that D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan hadn't supported the budget autonomy referendum from the beginning either.
"The attorney general said Congress would overturn it, and they didn't," Mr. Smith said. "I think people ought to stop finding ways to let this be stopped."
Because the District is a federal enclave, current budget procedures require the D.C. Council adopt and the mayor sign off on a budget, which is then sent to the president and Congress as part of the federal appropriations process.
The referendum language did not specify when the charter amendment will be implemented. The effective date was outlined in D.C. Council legislation that approved the referendum but not in the referendum language itself.
D.C. Appleseed is the same group arguing against postponement of the election of an attorney general, which was also passed by referendum. But in that case the time frame for an election was outlined in the referendum language.
After the charter amendment takes effect, the budget will be adopted by the council in the same way as other bills, requiring two readings and a 30-day review period by Congress.
The D.C. Council has not readopted the budget under its new procedures and will have to do so before the charter amendment can take effect Jan. 1, Mr. Smith said. So if the council has to take action to make the amendment effective anyhow, it might as well move the date to get the city out of its current conundrum, he said.
"If Congress passes a continuing resolution this week then I think there will be less urgency in changing the date," Mr. Smith said. "I believe so long as there is a good argument, and we can do it, we should do it."
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