The D.C. Board of Elections on Tuesday rejected arguments from the city’s top lawyer and will let voters decide this spring if they want to divorce the city’s local budget from the spending process on Capitol Hill — a long-sought goal known as “budget autonomy.”
The board’s decision came a day after D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan reluctantly implored the board to be “courageous” and to deny a proposed charter referendum from the ballot, even if it would be a politically unpopular stance. He said the measure is legally unsound and could create a backlash from members of Congress.
The board bucked his request by drafting ballot language for the D.C. Council-driven effort so the electorate can weigh in during the April 23 special election to fill a vacant council seat.
“A yes vote on [the question] will free D.C.’s local tax dollars from a dysfunctional Congress,” said James Jones, a spokesman for the D.C. Vote advocacy group, which is backing the referendum. “Our local tax dollars should not be held hostage by people we did not elect to serve.”
Mr. Nathan, who served as general counsel to the House of Representatives from 2007 to 2011, told the elections board it pained him to testify against the referendum, since he thinks the city deserves the right to spend its locally raised revenues.
But, he said, he took an oath to uphold the law. The measure does not pass legal muster and could result in a political backlash from members of Congress who view the move as an encroachment on their oversight powers, he told the board.
While it may be an unpopular decision, Mr. Nathan said, the denial would be better for the District in the long run as it attempts to achieve budget autonomy through legislation on the Hill.
Mr. Nathan told reporters he is not in a position to defend the referendum if it is challenged, so he will leave the task to the council’s lawyers and advocates for the District’s self-determination.
Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, a Democrat, said the referendum was designed to be a “two-track” effort alongside legislative attempts on the Hill. One such attempt, led by Rep. Darrell E. Issa, California Republican, has stalled since 2011, because conservative lawmakers tried to attach measures to the bill that would alter the city’s abortion and gun laws.
Mr. Issa’s staff has indicated the congressman thinks local officials are free to put forward the referendum, but warned that potential legal challenges could delay their mutual efforts to achieve budget autonomy for the District.
The council’s lawyer, V. David Zvenyach, told the board on Monday that city lawmakers have the right to put forward the ballot question without interference from the elections board, which is not a court.
The charter referendum, if successful, will force Congress to actively disapprove of the voters’ wish to detach its local budget from the spending process on the Hill. It would also let city officials use a traditional July 1 to June 30 fiscal year, instead of the federal fiscal year, which runs from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30.
City officials said federal lawmakers will still have ultimate authority over the District and may object to the city’s budget during a routine 30-day period in which it passively reviews any D.C. law.
The D.C. Council authorized the referendum late last year with unanimous support. Mayor Vincent C. Gray signed the bill in late December, despite reservations about the measure’s legality.
• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at email@example.com.
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