Obama budget earmarks millions for Metro, other area needs

By Ann E. Marimow
Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The White House budget plan submitted to Congress on Monday would provide millions of dollars to upgrade the region's troubled Metro system, clean up the Chesapeake Bay and limit the spread of HIV and AIDS in the District.

President Obama's $3.8 trillion budget proposal would extend tax cuts for 5.2 million families in Maryland, Virginia and the District, according to the White House, and could provide breathing room for local budget writers by extending an increase in Medicaid funding.

The budget blueprint, which requires the approval of Congress, also would boost spending for 1.3 million military families and veterans in the Washington region and help local students pay for college.

As details of the budget emerged Monday, local government leaders celebrated the president's inclusion of $150 million to help Metro buy rail cars and pay for other urgent safety improvements. Congress passed legislation in 2008 authorizing $1.5 billion in federal funds for the transit agency over 10 years, and the District, Maryland and Virginia have pledged matching funds.

The first installment of $150 million for Metro was included in an appropriations bill Obama signed in December, but this was the first time the president recommended such funding in his budget blueprint.

"We appreciate President Obama's request to protect the substantial investment the federal government and the national capital region have made in the Metro system," said Metro Board Chairman Peter Benjamin of Maryland. "We must do everything we can to operate a safe system, and these resources will help us do that."

Under the proposed budget, the District would get $10 million for Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's Housing First initiative, which the city says has moved hundreds of homeless men and women into subsidized apartments. The amount is about $7 million less than last year, but the funds will help create about 240 units, primarily to help chronically homeless veterans.

The budget provides $5 million to support the D.C. Department of Health's efforts to ensure counseling, testing and treatment in the city's high-risk, high-poverty areas and to continue outreach campaigns. A report last year determined that HIV/AIDS affected about 15,000 adult residents, or at least 3 percent of the city's population -- the highest prevalence rate in the nation.

At a time when unemployment in the District has reached 12.1 percent, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said the budget could also create scores of local jobs in demolition and construction. She pointed to the president's inclusion of $380 million to build a sprawling homeland security complex on the grounds of the former St. Elizabeths Hospital.

For education, the budget mentions $20 million for the city to "jump start public school reform." Jennifer Calloway, a spokeswoman for D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, said the money would help cover the cost of tightening up a data system that tracks student progress and also help a weekend school program.

In addition, the proposal for the District includes $23 million for public schools, $20 million for charters and $9 million to phase out the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program that has provided private school vouchers since 2004. The money will only support students enrolled in the program.

As it has in the past, the federal government would continue to provide $35 million to allow D.C. residents to pay in-state tuition to attend public universities and colleges throughout the country. In addition, the president would boost spending to $2 million to help National Guard troops pay for college.

The plan would raise the maximum Pell grant to $5,710. The increase would provide $136.3 million to help more than 36,000 students in the District; $416.2 million for more than 110,000 students in Maryland; and $642.7 million for more than 163,500 students in Virginia.

For local lawmakers struggling to balance the books, the president's Medicaid budget could provide some temporary relief next year. His Medicaid proposal includes an additional $25 billion to extend by six months increases enacted in last year's economic recovery act. The funding includes $376 million for Virginia, $389 million for Maryland and $77 million for the District.

Katharine Webb, senior vice president of the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association, cautioned that the funding is only a stop-gap measure. "We are in many ways delaying the inevitable when we're going to have to address the shortfall," she said.

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