D.C. voters will decide budget autonomy, possibly followed by the courts

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Local,DC,Eric P. Newcomer

In less than a month, D.C. voters will decide whether to grant the District budget autonomy -- a move which immediately could be challenged in the courts or give the District the power to set its own budget without congressional action.

The limited voter attention directed toward the April 23 special election so far has been focused on the seven-person race for an at-large Council seat, but the only referendum on the ballot has the power to tear away some federal interference and take the District one step closer to the trappings of statehood.

"I'm hopeful that it's going to pass. It would be a big benefit for the District of Columbia," said at-large candidate and pro-marijuana attorney Paul Zukerberg. "Not only do we want it to pass, but we want to pass by enough of a turnout that it sends a real message that we're serious about that."

The referendum would declare that if the Council and the mayor approved the District's local budget, Congress would have 30 days to vote down the budget. If Congress failed to act, it would become law.

Right now, Congress has to approve the city's budget, which can leave the District in a lurch as it waits for the federal government to give the District permission to spend its own money.

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., whose House committee has oversight over the District said in an email: "D.C. residents have a right to decide how they want to pursue changes to their local governance. But there are concerns that passage of this referendum will lead to more problems than progress toward greater local budget autonomy. Regardless of the outcome, I'm going to continue to work with [D.C.] Congresswoman [Eleanor Holmes] Norton to find a path forward."

Supporters are optimistic the law will pass, though it could face legal challenges, even in the weeks leading up the election.

Attorney General Irvin Nathan has already publicly opposed the referendum, which he thinks attempts to usurp power from Congress illegally. The D.C. Board of Elections considered keeping the legislation off the ballot, but decided to let it go forward.

Defenders of the bill say that voters should not fret about the legality of the law.

"If there's a legal challenge, then leave it to the courts," said Walter Smith, executive director of D.C. Appleseed. "I think we're right on the law and even if there's a legal challenge I think we'll win it."

enewcomer@washingtonexaminer.com

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