On April 23, the voters in the District of Columbia for the first time have the opportunity to speak out for budget autonomy. This is a vote for local control of the nearly $6 billion in funds we raise from taxes without Congress's pre-approval. Currently after our annual budget is approved by the Council and signed by the Mayor it goes to Capitol Hill for Congress's review before it becomes law.
While it would be nice to fight at the same time for legislative autonomy the thought is that Congress may actually give us the right to control our own local budget before they give up the right to second guess our laws.
This referendum was put on the ballot by the D.C. Council and it isn't the first time they spoke up for budget autonomy. The last time they did so they advocated for a bill which got hung up in the Senate when ultra-conservative Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) added amendments on guns, labor unions and abortion making the final bill untenable to the District. However this is the first time this issue has been put to a referendum where the people have a say.
If Referendum 8 passes it will amend the language in the 1973 Home Rule Charter to give the D.C. government autonomous control of local tax revenue. The change would go into effect unless Congress and the president block it. Under the new process Congress would still have a 35 day review period for the D.C. budget but it would have to vote retroactively to amend the funding proposal rather than voting to pass it outright. This is a more difficult scenario to get through the Congress.
While there are definitely issues with this referendum which were brought up by Attorney General Nathan and Mayor Gray, including the fact that this may not be legal under our Home Rule Charter, Mayor Gray has endorsed the measure.
Whatever the final result of this is there should be no doubt about the people's desire to have budget autonomy. For that to happen people need to come out and vote yes on Referendum 8. We need to say in a loud and clear voice to Congress that the time for 'taxation without representation' is over and that the people of the District of Columbia demand to be treated fairly.
As a means to attract attention to the cause and let people know that they should go out and vote, activists led by D.C. Vote have created the D.C. Budget Freedom Committee, through which they will accept donations, put up yard signs and otherwise run a normal campaign in favor of the referendum. The referendum has been endorsed by a wide variety of groups including the DC Association of Realtors; DC Democratic State Committee; DC Fiscal Policy Institute; DC NAACP; DC Republican Committee; Greater Washington Urban League; The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights; League of Women Voters; and the National Organization For Women; among countless others.
Join them and make your voice heard by voting YES on Referendum 8 on April 23.
It isn't always that a young film student gets the opportunity to make and act in a film that has broad and current implications for the community. Jonathan Looper got that chance when a childhood friend reached out to him on Facebook and shared his story of facing mental illness and the impact it had on his own and his family's life. Jonathan tells his friend's story in a very real and compassionate way in the film My Only Son.
I first met Jonathan when he was a student at Georgetown University and looking for ways to have a political impact on the world. He is a smart young man from Oklahoma with great ambition and a strong sense of social justice. When I met him he was enjoying life in D.C. and had a diverse group of friends involved in the social and political life of the city.
At some point he decided that he wanted to be an actor and that he could have an impact on the world through the medium of film. Many of us were surprised when he actually went to film school but not surprised that he has been successful.
Life is often a series of coincidences and for Jonathan one came in early 2012 when that childhood friend reached out to him -- a friend he hadn't heard from since grade school. After reconnecting and sharing how their lives have moved forward, his friend opened up to him about his life and how he had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and the impact that had on his life. He also told Jonathan how he wished he were a better writer so that his story could be told and used to help others. Jonathan knew he could tell that story through film and it could be important for so many. That story became My Only Son -- Jonathan's film for his master's degree.
It is the story of a young man growing up in the West who joined the Air Force. He wasn't in for all that long when he felt compelled to leave so he could help care for his mother as she battled ovarian cancer. Back in the civilian world, he decided he needed to get a college degree. During his first semester he began having hallucinations and hearing voices that over a period of a few short weeks completely took over his life. After a while he shared this with his parents whose immediate reactions were that his hallucinations had to be a result of his taking drugs and they cut him out of their lives. Then in 2008 he was diagnosed with schizophrenia. What made his parents' initial reaction more interesting was that they had both studied psychology. His mother eventually told him that she never considered his problem could be a mental illness because "she never thought this could be happening to 'her' child."
In researching the film, Jonathan spoke to psychologists and asked how someone who studied psychology would not even consider that her son had a mental illness but rather blame it on drugs. One psychologist told him, "While her profession may be in psychology, she is "not a psychologist to [her] child;" that even a psychologist is human and subject to the same emotional responses (devastation, fear, denial, etc..) as any other parent whose child is going through something like this.
That made Jonathan realize even more how relevant this story is today as countless servicemembers and their families return from war and work not only to find their way in a struggling economy, but at the same time are dealing with major life issues including mental illnesses. The film is the story of a young man's struggle for acceptance and understanding from his friends, family and finally himself while battling the onset of schizophrenia.
Jonathan was able to make this film because he convinced others of its importance and the impact it could have on so many people suffering from mental illness and their families. Most of the cast and crew donated their time or worked for little compensation. Equipment and locations were donated or gotten at greatly reduced rates. The realities of the film industry may make this the last time in his life that Jonathan can make such a film for so little money.
My Only Son is a beautifully made film that shows off Jonathan's ability both as a filmmaker and an actor. It will be shown at various film festivals and I believe people will recognize it is a story that needs to be seen and told over and over again.
Society must remove the stigma from mental illness and ensure that people are able to get the medical help they need and the support from family and friends that will make their and all our lives so much better.
For more information on Jonathan Looper, visit My Only Son.
This column was first published in the Huffington Post.
On Tuesday evening, February 5 the Mayor delivered his State of the District Speech to a packed house at the historic restored synagogue on 6th and Eye Street. It was a location fitting a speech about a restored city.
In two short years the Mayor and his administration have worked successfully to replenish the city's reserve fund; produce an unparalleled economic development boom; and improved both the scope and efficiency in which basic city services are delivered. In the Mayor's words using baseball analogies he said, "The District is now a big-league city".
The Mayor gave credit to previous administrations and singled out retiring CFO Natwar Gandhi for his part in restoring our city's finances. He saluted former Mayor Anthony Williams for the goal he set to bring 100,000 new tax paying residents to the District. In the last 24 months the city has attracted more than 1,100 people a month and while it may have taken a little longer than Mayor Williams wanted the Gray administration is working successfully to fulfill that pledge.
The Mayor highlighted specific programs such as his One Hire program, through which 5,300 previously unemployed D.C. residents have gotten jobs with nearly 900 participating employers. The Mayor proudly said, "The lion's share of people we've helped to find work live in areas of the city where unemployment is the highest - Wards 5, 7 and 8".
He touted that under his administration, by improving services to some of the District's most vulnerable residents, the city has taken back local control of many government functions that the courts had imposed federal management over decades ago. This includes services to special-education students and people who are mentally ill. The city has either ended or is very close to ending the Petties, Blackmon, Dixon, LaShawn, and Evans cases. In the Dixon lawsuit the city had been under federal court oversight for 37 years!
The Mayor is justly proud that his administration has completed the construction of nearly 1,500 units of affordable housing and broken ground on an additional 1,700 units and that last year he was able to announce $35 million in financing to create and preserve additional affordable housing. But he agreed that more needed to be done. To a standing ovation he proposed a major affordable-housing initiative that will invest $100 million in building and preserving an additional 10,000 units of affordable housing. He said, and the crowd clearly agreed, that these investments in affordable housing will go a long way towards ensuring we remain the type of compassionate, inclusive city we want to be.
The Mayor announced that in the Fiscal Year 2014 Budget he will transmit to the Council in March he is proposing the establishment of the One City Fund, a $15 million investment fund that will allow non-profits to compete openly and transparently for one-year grants of up to $100,000 for projects that advance the city's key goals. These include: Growing and diversifying our economy; Educating or preparing our residents for the emerging new economy; increasing our city's sustainability; or improving the quality of life for our residents.
The Mayor also set a new ambitious goal of creating 100,000 jobs and $1 billion of new tax revenue for the District over the next five years. He said this will be accomplished by implementing a strategy of diversifying the city's economy and growing established and emerging sectors like hospitality, health care, and technology.
All in all any person who views our city fairly will agree that the State of the District has never been better.