Budget autonomy plaintiff Phil Mendelson
Budget autonomy plaintiff Phil Mendelson

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According to D.C. Council chairman Phil Mendelson, his suspicions that Vince Gray would veto the Council’s budget started earlier this week. Looking to talk about the budget with the outgoing mayor, Mendelson says he couldn’t make a meeting or phone call with Gray.

“The storm clouds were forming,” Mendelson tells LL.

Fortunately for Mendelson, this storm looks like it’s going to be just a sprinkle. While Mendelson’s last attempt to override one of Gray’s vetoes ended in disaster, Gray is facing longer odds this time around. With 12 out of 13 councilmembers voting for the budget, Gray would have to sway four new councilmembers to oppose Mendelson by Monday’s vote.

It’s a steep task for a mayor who won’t be around to dole out carrots or sticks for much longer. It’s also one that would require more political muscle than Gray displayed when the Council originally ran roughshod over his budget goals.

And then, there’s a more personal reason councilmembers would want to think a long time before siding with Gray. Ditching Mendelson’s budget would likely require a budget season-weary Council to delay its recess, set to start next week. In his veto letter, Gray asks the Council to delay recess by as much as 30 days to work on a compromise budget.

“If the Council doesn’t [vote to override the veto], then we spend the summer with a little bit of a crisis going on,” Mendelson says.

Gray’s veto letter includes not-so-veiled appeals to councilmembers who could join his cause. Ward 6’s Tommy Wells, who was the only councilmember to vote against the budget, would be heartened by restored streetcar funding. Gray’s attempt to eliminate the so-called “yoga tax” on health services would appeal to at-large councilmember and mayoral hopeful David Catania, who tried to the do the same thing with a failed amendment. Gray’s veto also tries to eliminate changes to a recently passed senior property tax break, which would help him win over at-large councilmember Anita Bonds, who created the legislation.

On Friday afternoon, staffers for Catania and Bonds were ambivalent on whether their bosses would join up with Gray. Wells couldn’t be reached for comment.

While Gray’s veto letter covers everything from Anacostia River clean-up to credits for fire-time home buyers, Mendelson characterized the two big issues in the fight as a dispute over whether to prioritize streetcars over his tax breaks, and a fight over the limits of executive power. That centers on how mayors can use the contingency cash reserve fund, which provided, among other things, funding for new city trash cans.

Gray spokesman Pedro Ribeiro, who says that some of Mendelson’s trigger-dependent tax cuts are almost “fictional,” tells LL that Gray’s letter amounts to a warning to mayoral candidates Catania and Muriel Bowser about how difficult running the mayor’s office will be if Mendelson’s budget stands.

“He’s basically saying, ‘Mark my words, this will come back to haunt you,'” Ribeiro says.

Ribeiro says that Gray couldn’t sign Mendelson’s budget in good conscience, whether or not he loses the budget fight.

“That’s no skin off the mayor’s back,” Ribeiro says. “He’s not going to be the next mayor.”

Photo by Darrow Montgomery