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Gray Gives the Lowdown on the Shutdown



D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray gave a lesson to a Wilson history class yesterday explaining the city’s Contingency Cash Reserve Fund as money that has been put aside for a rainy day.


Well, it’s been raining. It is Day 11 of the government shutdown, and the morale in DC mirrors the weather. The students of Michelle Bollinger’s history class, however, were fully engaged as the city’s mayor joined their class to explain exactly what has been going on since October 1.


D.C. has a population of 632,000, which is more than the states of Vermont and Wyoming. But “sadly, we are treated like second class citizens,” said Gray. The city’s status as a federal district leaves it without representation in Congress or the budget autonomy needed to function without Congress’ support. As part of the shutdown, Congress has not approved D.C.’s budget for this fiscal year, throwing the city into a state of financial panic and forcing it to dip into reserve funds.


“Why do we have to shut down? And why is it that we can’t spend our own money?” Gray asked the students. He stressed the fact, both to the Wilson audience and on Thursday to Senate majority leader Harry Reid, that DC is not an arm of the government, and should not be subjected to the same financial treatment as the Department of Defense, the Department of Interior, or any other department. “We’re not part of your government, man,” he said to students on Friday.


Gray is an advocate for D.C. statehood, and believes that D.C.’s budget should be treated like a state’s. D.C. generates revenue in the same way states do — through property, income, and sales taxes, taking in a total of $6.1 billion each year. But the power to control that money lies with Congress.


The reason lies in Article 1, Section 8 of the United States Constitution, written in 1787, which states that Congress has the authority  “To exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten Miles square).”


“There is no way that Congress would go to the state of Maryland or the state of Virginia or the State of Delaware and say that you may have your own money, but you better come and ask us if you can spend it,” Gray said.


Gray drew several parallels between D.C.’s lack of rights and slavery, calling Congress “our overlords, our overseers,” and urging them to “let my people go.” He highlighted the hypocrisy evident in the District’s suffering from taxation without representation — the very condition that prompted our fight for independence from the British over 200 years ago. Gray noted ironically that America has “liberty and justice for all – except if you live in the District of Columbia.”


This inequality infuriates Gray, partly because the District has proven they can manage their own money. “We have had 18 consecutive years of balanced budgets in the District of Columbia. How many consecutive years has the federal government had a balanced budget?” Gray asked students.


“Zero” the kids answered.


The shutdown has forced the city to tap into its contingency fund, which contained $210 million on October 1, according to Pedro Ribeiro, Director of the Mayor’s Office of Communication. That supply is dwindling. Principal Pete Cahall asked how many more days this money would last, and Gray said it is hard to know.


To the surprise of the federal government, Gray designated all D.C. government employees as essential, which has meant that thus far, all D.C. employees have continued to be paid “We’ve made the commitment to not shut down the city.”


In response to a student who asked why the government is continuing to spend despite the shutdown, Gray replied, “I don’t want want to be brought to my knees, and I hope you all don’t want to be brought to your knees either.”


“For me, this situation is worth it because I want you all to be able to go to school everyday,” he said. “You can call it defiance. I call it good government.”


D.C. has a $99 million payroll due October 15, which Ribeiro said will be paid. But D.C.’s ability to meet the next payroll, on October 29, is highly questionable. Ribeiro said every payment has to be scrutinized to see if it can be put off, and if so, for how long.


Gray requested that all D.C. employees, including DCPS teachers, continue to work if the money runs out, because they will be reimbursed once the shutdown ends. In response to a question about how public schools and services will be affected, Gray said “I have no intention of closing schools. My intention is to keep the city operating.”


The Republican-led House of Representatives passed a bill on October 2 to fund the D.C. government through December 15, but the bill was rejected by the Democratic Senate as part of a piecemeal approach that undermines their political strategy. Gray said “We [D.C. residents] are just a pawn on a chess board at this point.”


He urged students to stand up for their rights and push for change. “We need more student activism in this city.”


Football coach and Special Education teacher Wallace Haith agreed. “We should plan a day where we can take off and protest this,” Haith said. “Ultimately this is going to affect all of us. This is the students’ fight.”


That may be especially true for charter schools. Ribeiro said that $150 million is due to the charter schools on October 25, and if the city can’t make that payment, “the smaller charters won’t survive.” But the D.C. government is fighting to prevent that from happening.

Rebeiro said, ” We are literally making this up as we go along.”

Annie Rosenthal contributed to this report