April 10, 2013 | by WBadmin
High stakes in budget autonomy referendum

By SCOTT SIMPSON

The basic rights of D.C. residents are subject to repeal or congressional veto at any time. This alone should be reason enough for every LGBT Washingtonian to come out and vote for the budget autonomy referendum on April 23.

As a result of the work carried out by generations of leadership, D.C. has among the strongest anti-discrimination laws in the nation; marriage equality; a fully funded HIV prevention and treatment infrastructure; and a mayor and Council who listen when our community speaks.

Yet we only have many of these laws and services in place at the pleasure of Congress, which, with the exception of our non-voting delegate, we had no say in electing. That’s because Congress must vote to approve each dollar our city spends. Often, that affirmative vote of approval comes with unwanted strings attached, leaving our local laws vulnerable to the whims of politicians who often represent constituencies that are vastly different from D.C., as well as the federal lobbyists and donors who have helped make Congress such a dysfunctional place.

The budget autonomy referendum is just one step in a generations-long battle to give Washingtonians the democracy we’re entitled to. It would amend D.C.’s Charter to make this approval process less of a target for Congress. Instead of submitting our budget for an affirmative vote from the House and Senate, our budget would be approved automatically after 30 days unless Congress opted to intervene.  This is the same 30-day window that applies to every other city law.

The reality of not having budget autonomy is that we can never just do what’s in the best interests of our city; we must first consider whether or not the likes of Rep. Michele Bachmann would approve.

To us, our budget is the framework for how we raise and spend our local tax dollars. To members of Congress, the D.C. budget is a backdoor for advancing the policy agendas of groups and ideologies that would never get through the front door of the Wilson Building and a chance to curry favor with constituents and donors.

But Washingtonians aren’t bargaining chips; we’re people. Because of this congressional interference, individuals who are struggling with addiction have been denied access to clean and safe needles and low-income women have had their access to reproductive health services restricted.

What are harder to quantify are the local priorities that our leaders don’t pursue out of concern that Congress would have intervened. D.C.’s marriage equality law was stymied for years because of the threat of congressional veto. This meant that activists had to engage in a sophisticated decades-long plan to ease D.C. into the kind of equality that wouldn’t draw the attention of the most extreme members of Congress.

The April 23 referendum has drawn opposition from some members of Congress who would rather we just accept federal primacy over our laws. For them, passage means that it will be harder to bargain with the lives of more than 600,000 Washingtonians.

Our city isn’t perfect. We are going through an ethics crisis in government, we have extreme disparities in the economic well being of our citizens, and we have a school system that treats many of its students more like prisoners than scholars. None of these problems are easy to fix, but having greater autonomy would allow us to solve our city’s problems with less interference from the outside.

Once D.C. citizens remove the obstruction of Congress and claim the democracy we’re entitled to as Americans, we can continue the work of making this city better for all of its citizens. That’s why it’s imperative for all of us to come out and vote for the referendum on April 23.

Scott Simpson is a longtime D.C. resident and voter.

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