By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 12, 2009
The giant 2009 spending bill signed by President Obama yesterday contains increased funds for D.C. students, millions of dollars to revive the Chesapeake Bay's dwindling oyster population and money for Metro cars, buses and bike lockers.
The $410 billion measure passed five months after the fiscal year began. Much of the government's funding has been held to fiscal 2008 levels since October.
D.C. officials welcomed the legislation's $35 million boost over last year for the city's struggling education system. The measure provides $54 million for the city's public schools, public charter schools and voucher program; $35 million for college tuition aid; and what was described as a one-time $20 million payment to recruit and train principals and create better school programs.
However, the law also places in doubt the future of the D.C. private school voucher program, established by a Republican-led Congress in 2004. That program must be reauthorized by Congress and approved by the city government to win funding beyond the 2009-10 school year, according to the legislation.
The voucher system benefits about 1,700 students, who receive up to $7,500 a year to attend their choice of private or parochial school.
Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) fought to extend the program, but his amendment failed.
"In drafting this bill, Democrats put their political agenda ahead of educating our children," he said.
Many Democrats, including Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D.C.), oppose public financing for private schools.
City Administrator Dan Tangherlini did not respond when asked whether the city would fight to keep the program but said he hoped students already in it could finish up at their schools.
"The kids getting [grants] now shouldn't be victimized by that debate" over the program, he said.
The spending measure provides millions for roads and public transit in the region. About $29 million is set aside for the long-planned extension of Metro to Dulles International Airport, and $1.9 million will go to improve the Interstate 95/Fairfax County Parkway interchange.
In addition to paying off the final $34.7 million owed for 52 new Metro rail cars and putting $13 million toward MARC rail line improvements, the allocation will provide $3 million for intersection improvements at each of three military facilities expecting an influx of employees because of the military's Base Realignment and Closure plan. They are the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Fort Meade in Anne Arundel County and Aberdeen Proving Ground in Harford County, Md.
Almost $1 million was approved for Metro bicycle lockers and for a bus safety program. Sen. James Webb (D-Va.) secured $2 million for a new entrance and elevators for the Rosslyn Metro station.
The spending measure was criticized for containing about 8,500 earmarks, or legislators' pet projects, worth almost $8 billion. Watchdog groups say the projects are often inserted with little scrutiny and can be favors for campaign donors.
Two local lawmakers were in the top 20 earmarkers in the 435-member House of Representatives, according to the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense. They were Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.), who was No. 9 with $75 million in projects requested individually or with other legislators, and House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), with $66 million in such projects. He was No. 16.
In the 100-member Senate, Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) ranked No. 22 in earmarks, with $150 million in projects he requested alone or with other lawmakers. Maryland's other senator, Barbara A. Mikulski (D), was No. 23, with $142 million.
Webb ranked No. 32, with $113 million. Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) took office in January, after most of the earmarking process.
Mikulski defended the earmarks she and others in the region obtained, such as $10 million to help watermen struggling with the depletion of the blue crab population and $4.6 million to restore oyster habitats in the bay. Maryland and Virginia will split those amounts.
"As the senior senator from Maryland, it is my responsibility to fight for funds in the federal checkbook that protect Maryland jobs and communities," Mikulski said in a statement.
Among other projects in the budget:
-- $163.5 million for the Food and Drug Administration's campus in White Oak. It will be used for a new lab focused on bioterrorism and antidotes to epidemic diseases, Mikulski said.
-- $331 million for building the Homeland Security Department headquarters in the District's Ward 8, a priority of Norton's.
-- $2.5 million for the Northern Virginia anti-gang task force, and more than $1 million for other initiatives to discourage gangs in the District, Maryland and Virginia.
-- $14 million for the District's combined sewer overflow control plan.
-- $950,000 for land for a new Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge.
Staff writers Ashley Halsey III, Lena H. Sun and Bill Turque contributed to this report.