The D.C. Council is suing Mayor Vincent C. Gray and the city’s chief financial officer over their refusal to implement a voter-approved law giving the District the right to set its budget without congressional interference.
D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson in a press conference outside D.C. Superior Court on Thursday announced the lawsuit, which dramatically escalates what has been an ongoing conflict between the branches of government.
“What the council is seeking to do is uphold the law,” Mr. Mendelson said. “This is not frivolous. This is not about us beating our chest. We think that we have a very good legal case.”
The act — which was approved by the council, overwhelmingly passed by voters in April 2013 and signed by the mayor — gives the District the authority to set its own fiscal calendar and spend its locally raised tax dollars without approval from lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
The measure survived a congressional review period, but an opinion issued in January by the Government Accountability Office said it had “no legal effect.” The opinion came after a House Appropriations Committee report in July dismissed the measure as nonbinding.
The issue has come to a head as officials weigh Mr. Gray’s fiscal 2015 budget. Mr. Mendelson said he received letters on April 11 from the mayor and from Chief Financial Officer Jeffrey S. DeWitt indicating they would refuse to enforce the act.
Mr. DeWitt said he would not authorize any payments under a budget that included the provisions of the act, while Mr. Gray said he would veto such a spending plan and that he would transmit the budget to Congress and the president on the customary deadline regardless of whether the council voted on it.
The officials were working on the advice of D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan, who has maintained that the act is illegal.
Attorneys Karen Dunn and Brian Nedder, who are representing the council pro bono, said they have been in talks with Mr. Mendelson over the case since February.
The lawsuit seeks a declaration from a judge indicating that the act is valid and directing Mr. Gray and Mr. DeWitt to abide by it.
The mayor, who expressed skepticism about the referendum effort before endorsing it days before the public vote, said through a spokesman that the administration welcomes the opportunity to “definitively settle this matter.”
“While we all agree that the District deserves full budget and legislative autonomy, we are confident that the court will side with the legal opinions of the District’s Attorney General, the District’s Chief Financial Officer, and the Government Accountability Office,” his spokesman, Pedro Ribeiro, said in a statement.
City officials have long complained that the congressional review requirement leaves the District vulnerable to the tortuous political battles among federal lawmakers.
Since 1990, Congress has appropriated the District’s budget ahead of the start of the fiscal year just three times, leading the city to have to increase short-term borrowing to make up for the time in between, Mr. Mendelson said.
The act would also allow the city to adjust its fiscal calendar away from that of the federal government, which begins on Oct. 1 — after the start of the school year.
The council chairman said the limit spending freedom provided by the act would still allow Congress to have its constitutionally-mandated oversight of D.C. affairs.
“Congress still has ultimate authority if it wants to exercise at any time legislation overwriting our budget, overwriting any law,” Mr. Mendelson said, noting that the District was left authority to amend the Home Rule Charter that set up the current form of city government.
Measures that would offer the District similar autonomy as the voter-approved referendum are currently working their way through their Congress.
While rare, a lawsuit between branches of government in the District is not unprecedented. The last time such an action was taken was in June 2003, when then-D.C. Council Chairwoman Linda W. Cropp sued the city’s mayor at the time, Anthony A. Williams, over a dispute involving the qualifications of the District’s inspector general. The case was eventually thrown out.