- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 29, 2012

D.C. officials remain upbeat about their prospects for getting the right to spend local funds without prior approval from Congress, despite a lack of tangible progress on Capitol Hill more than a year after a powerful House member floated a plan to grant the city “budget autonomy.”

Mayor Vincent C. Gray and Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s nonvoting member of Congress, said Tuesday that budget autonomy for the city is in sight, even though last year it rejected an initial bill from Rep. Darrell E. Issa, California Republican, to divorce local D.C. spending from the federal appropriations process. The initial bill also would have banned publicly funded abortions in the city.

“There’s no question that one of the sticking points has been a continuing effort to foreclose the right of people in the District of Columbia to make decisions around reproductive rights,” Mr. Gray said Tuesday.

Every year, city leaders gird for federal interference in their local affairs, particularly through “social riders” on federal spending plans that tend to affect the city’s home rule in four areas, according to Ms. Norton: reproductive rights, gun laws, marriage equality and HIV/AIDS programs such as needle exchanges.

Despite the unwelcome abortion restriction on last year’s bill, on Tuesday city officials spoke glowingly of unlikely Republican ally Mr. Issa. They gathered at the Rayburn House Office Building to proactively denounce attempts to infringe on the District’s home rule during the upcoming appropriations process.

Mr. Issa has said he will work on an amended bill that frees up local D.C. spending that is both free of objectionable riders and allows city officials to set their own fiscal year. He first raised this concept at an oversight hearing last May on the city’s fiscal 2012 budget.

The federal fiscal year from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30 has been cumbersome on the city because it splits up the school year, according to D.C. officials.

Mr. Gray acknowledged the fight for budget autonomy may not appear to be moving fast enough.

“Because if it were left up to me, it would happen in five minutes,” he said. “But we have seen progress.”

Mr. Gray said he is “personally gratified” that Mr. Issa has continued his support for budget autonomy. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell are now also pushing the District’s financial autonomy.

“These are all leading Republicans, [so] I think it certainly indicates momentum on this bill,” Mr. Gray said.

Mrs. Norton, a Democrat, said city officials are working with the Republican-controlled House, so “we don’t have any right to run out of patience.”

Recent turmoil around Mr. Gray’s 2010 campaign activities is unlikely to help the District’s efforts in promoting self-governance. Two members of the mayor’s campaign’s finance team pleaded guilty last week to paying a minor candidate with undocumented funds during the mayoral race, hoping he would bash the incumbent Adrian M. Fenty.

Their pleas arrived months after former city lawmaker Harry Thomas Jr. resigned from the D.C. Council and received a 38-month prison term for stealing public funds. The U.S. attorney for the District is also looking into payments from the 2008 re-election campaign of council Chairman Kwame R. Brown.

Yet a spokesman for Mr. Issa’s oversight committee said the charging documents filed against Mr. Gray’s campaign aides merely shed more light on facts that were uncovered by the committee last fall and should not affect ongoing negotiations.

“This issue’s been discussed for a long time,” Mr. Gray said of budget autonomy. “I’ve heard nothing from anybody [on the Hill].”

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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