Budget autonomy plaintiff Phil Mendelson
Budget autonomy plaintiff Phil Mendelson

Despite an anticipated showdown today between Mayor Muriel Bowser and D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson over the budget, the uncertainty at Council meetings this afternoon didn’t come from which pol would win out. Instead, the question of the day became how the Council should pass the budget at all.

That’s because of an order this afternoon from the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, which sent the Council’s long-simmering budget autonomy lawsuit back to D.C. Superior Court and vacated an earlier ruling against budget autonomy.

The appeals order comes after Muriel Bowser, reversing a stance from predecessor Vince Gray, flipped the mayoral opinion on the 2013 budget autonomy referendum. By changing the executive’s position, Bowser decided that the referendum means the District can unilaterally grant itself the ability to pass a budget without congressional or presidential approval. Since the Council’s lawsuit was originally against the mayor, the appeals court declared the appeal moot.

Mendelson, who instigated the budget autonomy lawsuit last year, said that he plans to ratify the budget as if budget autonomy is in effect. That means a second upcoming vote on the budget. In a press release, Bowser’s office declared the ruling the “biggest victory for District autonomy since the end of the Control Board.”

The legislative and executive branches may agree, but one significant person doesn’t: Chief Financial Officer Jeffrey DeWitt, the guy who controls the District’s treasury. DeWitt, the other defendant in the Council’s lawsuit, still thinks the referendum doesn’t have legal force, according to spokesman David Umansky.

“Our lawyers have said that we are now back to square one,” Umansky says in an email.

Mendelson plans to negotiate with DeWitt about how to pass the budget. Attorney General Karl Racine, who agrees with DeWitt, didn’t respond to an immediate request for comment.

In the light of the budget autonomy shake-up, unanimous votes on a raft of budget bills came off like an anti-climax. Thanks to some last minute horse-trading that kept the Council’s first session running more than two hours behind, even Bowser stalwarts like Ward 8 Councilmember LaRuby May acted conciliatory with Mendelson. In a late addition to the budget, Mendelson compromised with Bowser and dropped means-testing for free Metro rail rides for students.

The general mood of agreement aside, Mendelson still took some jabs at the mayor, who held a press conference yesterday claiming that Mendelson’s budget would close buildings at the St. Elizabeths East campus (he claims that he told her last week that it wouldn’t). Mendelson said Bowser spent Tuesday “bitterly complaining” about the budget and offered an “apology” for a sign produced by his opponents that said a building was closed at his order.

“Anyone who says we are doing a little or not doing a lot to help the disadvantaged is misrepresenting the truth,” Mendelson said.

Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans complained that, despite the budget’s size, the city wasn’t getting enough results.

“For $12.9 billion, we should be able to solve all of the problems in this city,” Evans said.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery