It is budget season in the District, and Mayor Muriel Bowser has proposed putting almost a million dollars to hire a firm to develop and execute a national education campaign for DC statehood. This is a solid step in the right direction but it falls short of what is needed. More than 86 percent of District voters approved a referendum on statehood last year, and now is the time to put our money where our votes are.
In the upcoming fiscal year the District should commit statehood funding for two main areas: 1) education and awareness about the cause to build political will locally and nationally, and 2) development of an administrative and financial transition plan for statehood.
The budget aims to target getting the right message out to selected states, but lacking more details it is unclear if there is a grassroots organizing component to support this initiative. At least a million dollars in this budget should be spent on grassroots education and organizing efforts in key states where statehood advocates can travel to build longterm relationships with unions, religious institutions, and civil rights groups. The budgeted amount, $952,000, is a lot of money but it is not nearly enough to mount a serious campaign. We cannot rely solely on a marketing campaign and must implement it in concert with state-by-state organizing efforts that build on congressional advocacy goals.
As we build political will for statehood, there remains a large elephant in the room: the cost and logistics of transitioning to statehood. The pursuit of statehood is constitutionally sound and morally just, but we also need to develop a detailed plan on how we will transition to statehood, how we will take on all the functions of a state, and how we will pay for taking over new functions.
While the District operates like a state in most ways, we do not pay for our court and prison system, as the US taxpayer pays over $660 million a year to cover those services for the people of the District. We need to develop a statehood transition plan that clearly lays out the process by which we will take back control of our court system and transfer many of our imprisoned citizens out of federal institutions around the country and into a state-run prison system that does not yet exist. If we can fund a study for the costs and benefits of a soccer stadium, surely we can and should do the same for statehood.
A statehood transition plan sounds boring but it is also necessary. Were we to get a hearing in the House or Senate on statehood, members of Congress could rightly ask how the District would take back and pay for its court and prison system. We do not have an answer for that. The mayor’s plan to develop nationwide political will for statehood would be embarrassingly undercut without due diligence to show how we would transition to become the 51st state.
If a government’s budget is a reflection of its values, it is long past time to put more money into building political will for statehood while also investing in the creation of a transition plan that is clear and detailed. Contact the mayor and the DC Council and tell them that $952,000 is not nearly enough, and that the marketing campaign should be matched with a grassroots organizing campaign to foster relationships and build support networks state by state.
And finally, tell District leaders that funds should be appropriated to develop a detailed statehood transition plan so that we all know how we will transition to being a state and how we will pay for it.
We will not become a state during this Congress, but we have an opportunity, this budget season, to create a solid foundation for statehood with smart but not so flashy investments that will pay dividends in the years to come.
Josh Burch is a member of Neighbors United for DC Statehood (www.the51st.org), a group of residents who believe that community organizing and strategic congressional outreach are the foundation and driving force behind the DC statehood movement. He can be found at [email protected] or followed at @JBurchDC.