WASHINGTON (AP) — The chairman of the House committee that oversees the District of Columbia said Thursday that he’s open to giving district leaders more freedom to spend their local tax dollars, a prospect that pleased D.C. officials who have been advocating for years for greater budget autonomy.
Congress must approve the district’s budget. That means services for the 600,000 residents of the nation’s capital hang in the balance anytime funding for the federal government is at risk of running out.
U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and the chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, said at a subcommittee hearing Thursday that he was not prepared to grant full budget autonomy to the district, but he said he wanted to streamline the approval process so the district’s local funds aren’t tied to the federal budget debate.
Issa told D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray after the hearing that he did not want district leaders to have to worry about slowdowns on Capitol Hill affecting city services. He told reporters he planned to work with Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., to introduce a bill that would allow the district to spend its local funds months earlier than when the federal budget is approved.
“I think there’s a justification to let the district do what a city does,” Issa said. “A city plans its own budget, uses its own funds and typically goes to a state capital hoping to get more.”
It’s unusual for the Oversight and Government Reform committee to call district leaders in to discuss their budget, and some advocates for D.C. autonomy said they feared Thursday’s hearing of a subcommittee that oversees the city would be another example of congressional meddling in local affairs. In calling the hearing, the panel had raised the specter of reviving a congressional control board to oversee the district’s finances, angering some D.C. leaders.
But that subject never came up at Thursday’s hearing, where the atmosphere was mostly collegial. Gray said afterward that he was encouraged by Issa’s proposal.
“I thought it was a good discussion, and I appreciated the opportunity to talk about those things that are important to our city, especially our ability to manage ourselves at the local level,” Gray said.
The mayor told the subcommittee that the potential federal shutdown this spring was a drain on city resources and that district leaders spent “scores of hours” preparing for it.
“We never should have been caught up in this,” Gray said.
The district collects about $5.5 billion a year in income, property and sales taxes, among other levies. While those funds account for little more than half of the district’s annual budget, most critical city services are funded by local dollars.
Issa asked Gray and the district’s chief financial officer, Natwar Gandhi, whether they could come up with a contingency plan to use only local funds in the event that federal funding is cut off for weeks or even months. Both assured Issa that they could.
D.C. leaders and two outside experts testified that the district is in better fiscal shape than most states and cities. The district is required to present a balanced budget to Congress every year under a system of checks and balances imposed after D.C.’s fiscal near-meltdown of the mid-1990s.
The district faces a $322 million budget gap for its coming fiscal year, which Gray has proposed closing with a mix of cuts and new taxes. Several council members, including Chairman Kwame Brown, have balked at the prospect of raising taxes on the city’s wealthiest residents.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)