- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 30, 2014

A measure approved by local lawmakers and D.C. voters that gave the city authority to spend its own money free from congressional interference has “no legal effect,” according to an opinion released by the investigative arm of Congress.

An opinion issued Thursday by the Government Accountability Office states that the D.C. government “remains bound by provisions of federal law which require it to submit budget estimates to the President for transmission to the Congress for the enactment of appropriations.”

The opinion vets the D.C. Budget Autonomy Act, which granted the city the authority to set its own fiscal calendar and spend its local tax dollars without congressional approval. The act, approved through voter referendum in April, went into effect this month.

The opinion appeared to be a setback for the city’s goal to secure greater independence from Congress.

Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the city’s non-voting congressional representative, was quick to point out that the GAO’s opinion has no legal authority of its own.

“While GAO opinions are certainly well respected in Congress, they have no legal effect,” she said.

Ms. Norton said she is still trying to preserve the city’s independence on Capitol Hill.

“Notwithstanding legal and political questions that have been raised, I will continue to work to head off any congressional efforts to block or overturn the referendum or to penalize the District for pursuing the referendum,” she said.

A spokesman for D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray, who raised doubts about the legality of the budget autonomy act, said the District does not plan to enforce the budget autonomy referendum.

“While we are disappointed, we are not surprised by the GAO’s legal opinion as it mirrors the opinion that the District’s own attorney general rendered to the Board of Elections,” spokesman Pedro Ribeiro said. “While we will continue working to secure both budget and legislative autonomy for the District, we intend to comply with all valid federal and local laws.”

But for D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, the opinion isn’t the final word on the budget autonomy act.

“What I need to do is sit down and discus with our counsel and discuss what options are open to us,” Mr. Mendelson said. “This is really between us and the chief financial officer. It’s not between us and the mayor.”

Activists decried the opinion, saying it in no way binds D.C. government.

“The opinion is just that — an opinion — and does nothing to undermine the budget law, or reverse the vote of the people of the District that gave rise to the law,” said D.C. Vote, which supported the referendum effort.

Other lawmakers have raised concern over the legality of the referendum.

The House Appropriations Committee report in July dismissed the voter-approved measure as nonbinding. Mr. Gray and Ms. Norton had expressed doubts about it until the measure was on the ballot.

D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan said in a statement he was gratified that the GAO opinion supported his own legal conclusions, issued prior to the vote.

“We continue to regret that the citizens were led in the referendum to believe that their votes would alter the federally prescribed budget process,” he said.

• Andrea Noble can be reached at anoble@washingtontimes.com.

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