House is set to cut D.C. tuition grants, but not as much as it previously wanted


Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), shown in September 2006, had warned that the D.C. Council’s move to create a  local scholarship program would threaten federal Tuition Assistance Grant funding. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Updated 1:30 p.m. with Norton comment

The District’s fiscal 2015 budget goes before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services Wednesday, and draft legislation circulated Tuesday contains good news and bad news for District officials who have sought to maintain the federal government’s commitment to funding college tuition assistance for D.C. residents.

The bad news is that House Republicans are recommending a cut from the current $30 million in federal funds earmarked for the D.C. Tuition Assistance Grant program, to $20 million. The good news is that last year, the House had recommended an even lower level of D.C. TAG funding — $15 million — that was doubled after a conference with the Democratic-majority Senate.

The upshot is that despite dire warnings about how the D.C. Council’s attempts to create a local scholarship program targeted at the neediest students might threaten federal funds, the debate over “D.C. Promise” does not yet appear to have significantly affected D.C. TAG. (Nor, apparently, have revelations of millions of dollars in undocumented spending, according to a city audit.)

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) and Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) both warned that the local scholarship program proposed by D.C. Council member David A. Catania and supported by most of his colleagues would cause Capitol Hill appropriators to cut back on federal scholarship commitments.

Gray spokesman Pedro Ribeiro said it was premature to declare those concerns overblown: “I think we can have a conversation after a final vote is had.”

Note that while the council voted to create the D.C. Promise scholarship program, which is expected to eventually cost about $20 million a year, Gray did not fund the program in his fiscal 2015 budget proposal, and the council did not add any funding in passing a spending plan late last month.

In a statement, Norton said the decision not to fund the local scholarship program “helped us preserve some funding for DCTAG in the House bill, and will help us with our efforts to restore full funding in the Senate.”

Overall, the House bill would appropriate $637 million in federal funds for various District functions and initiatives, which is $66 million less than President Barack Obama requested earlier this year. Besides the $20 million cut off the D.C. TAG request, the House zeroed out a $16 million request to assist the vast Clean Rivers Project to dig new sewage tunnels underneath the city.

There is other good news for the District government in the House budget legislation: There are no new policy riders (though a longstanding restriction on spending government funds on abortions remains), and a provision allowing the District to remain in operation in case of a federal shutdown has been extended through the 2016 budget year.

Riders could still be added in tomorrow morning’s subcommittee markup or in a full committee markup expected to take place in the coming days.

Ahead of those votes, a coalition of more than 40 advocacy groups led by D.C. Vote has sent a letter to members of Congress, asking them to resist “imposing social-policy riders that usurp the prerogative of the District of Columbia’s elected mayor and council and the citizens they represent.”

“These actions are unfair and intolerable,” the letter states. “Congress does not impose its views on any other local jurisdiction. We expect Congress to be consistent by letting District residents manage their own affairs without interference or meddling.”

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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Mike DeBonis · June 17