Congress passes District’s budget

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In a triumph for advocates of home rule, he District’s budget for 2010 passed through Congress free of previous restrictions on medical marijuana, needle-exchange programs and abortions.

Because Washington falls under federal control, Congress must approve its budget each year. In the past, federal lawmakers had tacked on amendments restricting the D.C. Council from legislating to allow certain practices like the use of medical marijuana, but this year’s appropriations bill grants more control to the local government in spending city tax dollars.

The new budget, according to a Committee on Appropriations press release, is free of special restrictions and “eliminates a prohibition on the use of local tax funds for abortion, thereby putting the District in the same position as the 50 states. Also allows the District to implement a referendum on use of marijuana for medical purposes as has been done in other states, allows use of Federal funds for needle exchange programs except in locations considered inappropriate by District authorities, and discontinues a ban on the use of funds in the bill for domestic partnership registration and benefits.”

The House and Senate approved the final proposed budget and financial plan, totaling $10.1 billion in gross funds, in a conference committee on Dec. 8. Ilir Zherka, executive director of D.C. Vote, an educational and advocacy organization devoted to achieving full voting representation in Congress, said it was past time for Congress to stop interfering in the District’s local affairs.

“The Congress has been acting in an outrageous fashion for the past decade plus, prohibiting the District of Columbia from enacting very important policy when it comes to needle-exchange programs or medical marijuana or even abortion, or whatever the issues are,” Zherka said.

By removing a rider on medical marijuana, the bill allows D.C. to call for a referendum on the legalization of marijuana for medical purposes. District residents had voted to legalize medical marijuana in 1998, but Congress knocked down the law before it went into effect with an amendment that prevented the city from setting its own drug laws.

“I don’t necessarily agree with all of those things or the enacting of all of those things, but I think it’s definitely cutting the first string of the federal hold over D.C. government,” junior Anna Thiergartner said.

Any future legislation passed by the D.C. Council still has to make it through 30 working days in Congress without getting overruled.

“I would definitely vote to legalize medical marijuana. It seems like that’s how the country’s trending in any case,” said senior McKenzie Wilson, citing New Jersey’s decision on Jan. 11 to allow its use. “And I think it’s good for D.C. to become more autonomous and to have more of a say, especially since we’re the heart of the government.”

A congressional ban on the use of city funds for needle-exchange programs, which provide clean needles to drug users in an effort to reduce HIV infections, was lifted in 2007, but Republicans sought to reattach riders to the bill that would block the programs. The final bill for 2010 came out of Congress without a needle-exchange ban.

The new budget also eliminates prohibitions on putting local tax dollars toward the funding of abortions for low-income mothers.

The recent focus in Congress on abortions within the health care reform bill put a spotlight on D.C.’s abortion budget rider.

“Although the issues have nothing in common, the unrelated issue in the Senate healthcare reform bill caused more attention to be paid to the House and Senate removal of the ban using local D.C. tax dollars for abortions in the District,” Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s non-voting delegate, wrote to the House Committee on Appropriations Chair David R. Obey, and House Subcommittee on Financial Services Chair Jose E. Serranoon Dec. 9, 2009, according to a statement.

With Norton one step closer to achieving her goal of removing all riders from D.C. appropriations, the District is also one step closer to autonomy.

“I always thought that D.C. residents were slightly bitter about how they have no real representation,” sophomore Leah Morse said, referring to the city’s obligation to pay federal taxes without having a voting congressional delegate. “So this puts some of the power back in their hands.”

Congress’s elimination of the riders on D.C.’s budget reflects D.C. Vote’s campaign for greater democracy in the District.

“We have been pushing for a long time for the Congress to respect the wishes of the local population and its elected officials,” Zherka said. “This shows the influence we’ve had collectively, not just D.C. Vote but also the city council and especially Congresswoman Norton. The success reflects our collective activities and influence.”

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