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D.C. voters get to weigh in on budget autonomy

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Local,DC,Eric P. Newcomer

The DC Board of Elections ruled Tuesday that the city's voters can decide whether to allow the District to independently set its budget without congressional approval.

Tuesday's decision amounts to a victory for supporters of D.C. independence after a confrontation that pitted city Attorney General Irvin Nathan against the council and the mayor's office.

Nathan told the Elections Board on Monday that he supported the referendum in theory, but urged board members not to put it on the April 23 special election ballot, arguing that it violated the Home Rule Act.

"Even though [the board's] duties are administrative, you have to act within the law," he said. He warned that the board should act before the voters are "misled" as to whether such a voter referendum would be legal.

The D.C. Council's attorney, David Zvenyach, said Monday that even if board members believed that the referendum violated the Home Rule Act, they should put it before voters and let the courts decide its legality. While Zvenyach also asserted that the referendum did not violate the city charter, he said the Elections Board did not have the authority to insert itself between the council and voters.

The bill's supporters are already preparing for future legal challenges against the referendum, which would allow the council to set its local budget without action from Congress.

"We don't know what form that challenge will take or where it will happen, but certainly we will be ready," said James Jones, communications director for the group DC Vote.

He said he is optimistic that voters will pass the referendum, which would also give the District the power to set its own fiscal year. But, Jones said, "We're going to run the campaign as if this was a tough battle."

The Elections Board has not issued a statement offering justification for its decision, but a spokeswoman on Tuesday evening left open the possibility that it would later in the week.

enewcomer@washingtonexaminer.com

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