A ‘High Five’ for DC Statehood or Is It?

Councilmember Vincent Orange on March 5th, will introduce legislation (VO Statehood) that is headed in the right direction for the DC Statehood movement but is timid, inadequate, and needs strengthening & amending before it should be adopted. The core components of the legislation are:

  1. Paying each shadow delegate (2 Senators & 1 Representative) per annum $35,000 per year
  2. Funding each delegate’s office with $75,000 for staffing
  3. Funding each delegate’s office with $75,000 for programing
  4. Providing $550,000 in funds for the Council to promote statehood through a website, lobbying, and media campaign

Before addressing the good, bad, and woefully inadequate of the specifics in the legislation the contents of the press release deserve some scrutiny as well. First, based on census data and population trend estimates the District is now at a population of 632,000 people and growing not 618,000. Second, why is there a focus on hiring a professional lobbying firm? Part of the problem with the statehood movement is that farmers from Iowa have better turnout for lobby days in the District that most statehood/voting rights groups. It’s time for the city to invest in community outreach and organizing not funding lobbyists to do it for us. And third, why-oh-why must every elected official start talking strong about statehood in the beginning of a speech or press release and then start backtracking to budget autonomy and voting rights by the end. Do we really need to invest in the budget autonomy issue? We’re already paying $300K to have the referendum on the April 23rd ballot and DC Vote and DC Appleseed seem to be doing just fine promoting budget autonomy on their own. What we don’t have is a solid citywide, well-funded statehood campaign and we sorely need it.

Now to the details of the proposal based on the press release (I might have more to say once the bill is available for review):

First and foremost, paying our shadow delegation is long overdue. Yes, Congress previously prevented the District from paying for statehood work but since the ban was lifted we’ve waited too long to get to this point. The salary, however, is woefully inadequate. Councilmember Orange was a vocal supporter of making Councilmembers be full-time employees and he should have the same standard for the shadow delegation. Our shadow delegates have been ineffective, partly because we never committed resources to their positions and offices. By not paying them (and now potentially paying them inadequately) we have people who cannot commit their full time and energy to their offices and the statehood cause. If we’re going to do it, let’s do it right. Let’s pay them what we pay Councilmembers and really put our money where our mouth is on statehood. We should have delegates that focus all their time and energy on the statehood cause and not have any excuses to do otherwise.

How can we really hold our current shadow delegates accountable for anything if we don’t pay them to do it? I’d love to find out if Paul Strauss has met with any Senate offices this Congress or last to promote the statehood cause. Given that he’s a Shadow Senator, surely he should be doing this but if we don’t pay him to do it how can we expect him to take time off of work to do so? If we elect them and pay them surely we can hold them to a higher standard than what we’ve grown to expect from these offices. Many good people have run and occupied these offices but they too have had to earn an income elsewhere thus diverting their time and attention away from what we elected them to do. Let’s pay them fairly so they don’t have other commitments that consume their time when they should be advocating for statehood.

Second and third, paying for staff and programming is a huge and necessary component of this proposal. I do believe that the staff funding needs to be increased but the programming funds could be sufficient. Recently, newly elected Shadow Representative Nate Bennet-Fleming has done a great job setting up meetings on the Hill with support from an intern, Matthew Lien. Shadow Rep. Bennet-Fleming and an unpaid intern are showing the potential for the office, imagine if they were paid full-time to do what they’ve been doing voluntarily. I think in addition to paying the shadow delegates adequately the bill should also either pay for one full-time professional staffer or allow for paid internships for area residents or students. $75,000 for staffing is good but it might not be enough especially if dealing with health care and other benefits.

Fourth, the section which should be dubbed “the Council’s funny-money account” should just be deleted and those funds should either be transferred right to the shadow delegation (which would cover their full-time salaries plus benefits) or be appropriated to the office of the Secretary to issue grants to local non-profits. The Council does not need to have a pot of money sitting around for them to do “statehood things.” They are a legislative branch! They make laws and have oversight over executive offices and executive functions. They need to stop pretending like they are mini-mayors. They are not executives and should not have executive duties. The last thing we need is the Council managing a special fund, it’s not their job, and it’s not their responsibility. If they want executive responsibilities they should run for mayor (oh wait, they all are).

The final point of concern from this proposal is how this is being coordinated with the Mayor’s Office. Prior to Inauguration Day the Mayor announced that he wanted to set up and office with an executive director, staff, and a commission to focus on statehood but we’ve heard nothing of it since. While we need more people and resources committed to the statehood cause, I’m not sure we need the mayor acting on one track, the shadow delegation on another, and then the Council on another. Maybe it’s a case of the more the merrier but I do worry with too many cooks in the statehood kitchen we’ll have competing and/or conflicting messages. I’m not sure what the right approach is but the Mayor, the Council, the shadow delegation, and citizen activists need to think about this long and hard. Where is it best that we commit our government resources to this cause? Government can’t do this alone but it should act wisely and uniformly so that the people of the District, the people of the United States, and Congress know that our message is clear and unified for statehood.

Councilmember Orange deserves credit for pushing this cause forward but I hope that he and his colleagues on the Council take time to think this over carefully. We have an opportunity here to really put our money where our mouth is as it relates to statehood. We could go all in and pay our elected shadow delegates what they deserve to commit their full-time attention to the statehood cause or we could stick with this proposal as-is by committing partial resources and getting a part-time commitment. After 212 years of inequality I’m tired of part-time commitments to this issue. I hope the Council considers this legislation, amends it, strengthens it, and fully funds our Shadow Delegation so that they can finally commit to what we elected them to do: To create the 51st state in the Union.

Josh Burch

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