Obama budget good to D.C., but national cuts could hurt

By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 14, 2011; 10:05 PM

President Obama's proposed fiscal 2012 budget protects many District programs from the federal budget ax, but Republicans are threatening to cut spending in some of the areas - including Metro, the courts and school improvements, local officials said Monday.

In the proposal released by the White House, Obama urges Congress to steer more federal resources to move the Department of Homeland Security to the campus of St. Elizabeths Hospital in Ward 8, allocate additional funds to fight HIV/AIDS and create a $5 million fund for local nonprofit arts organizations.

Obama's budget also continues funding for a program that allows D.C. students to pay in-state tuition at hundreds of colleges and universities across the country, maintains stable funding for city public and charter schools, and keeps the federal government's commitment to supply Metro with $150 million to pay for upgrades to the system.

"When you consider the climate here, I am very pleased that the president spared the District from the harshest cuts," said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D). "He had an eye on our priorities."

Obama's proposed 2012 budget sets the stage for a grueling debate this year on Capitol Hill about the amount and types of support the cash-strapped federal government should be offering the District government and its residents.

Last year, Congress failed to approve a fiscal 2011 budget, opting instead to keep the government running on fiscal 2010 spending levels. With the federal government facing a record deficit, the Republican majority in the House of Representatives has started to look to the District for some savings.

House Republicans unveiled a spending resolution Friday night that would cut federal payments to the District by nearly $80 million and slash Metro funding by $150 million over the next eight months as the GOP seeks to fulfill its campaign pledge to rein in government outlays.

The GOP's continuing resolution is designed to govern federal spending from the beginning of March, when it expires, through the remainder of fiscal 2011, which ends Sept. 30.

House Republicans' proposed cuts would affect several categories of District services. Compared with spending levels for fiscal 2010, the bill would reduce payments for D.C. courts by $25.5 million; school improvements by $15.4 million; the Water and Sewer Authority by $10 million; the forensics lab by $15 million; veterans housing by $7 million; and programs for "disconnected youth" by $4 million.

D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) said the proposed GOP cuts would be a crippling hit for Metro and some city programs. With the District facing a $400 million budget shortfall, Evans said the city won't be able to make up the difference for any federal cuts to local programs or Metro.

"If they renege on all these commitments, many of these projects are going to have to stop," Evans said, noting that the federal government, Maryland and Virginia agreed in 2008 to give Metro $150 million a year for 10 years to pay for a $1.5 billion improvement project. "We are not in a position to pick up another $200 million or even $50 million."

The House proposal also would prohibit funding for the District's needle-exchange program, reversing a policy that Democrats in Congress fought to remove in 2008.

"We may have to fight the battle all over again," said Walter Smith, executive director of the DC Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, which has advocated for needle exchange programs to fight HIV/AIDS. "I don't know why they would do that - the facts are just unanswerable that needle exchange programs work and they save lives."

Officials in the administration of D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) said Monday that they were relieved that Obama's proposed 2012 budget largely avoided cuts in direct federal payments to the city.

According to an analysis conducted by the Office of the Chief Financial Officer, Obama is proposing $149.3 million in direct federal support, compared with $151.8 million approved for the city in fiscal 2010.

As part of Obama's budget, aid to public schools would grow by about $2.5 million, to $44.4 million. Funding for charter schools would remain consistent with 2010 levels, at $20 million.

But Obama is proposing to eliminate additional resources for the city's controversial school voucher program. Under a deal the president announced in 2009, students now enrolled in the program will be allowed to complete their education. The program is not accepting new applicants, although some GOP leaders are pushing to change that policy.

Obama's budget also has millions of dollars in new money to pay for the relocation of the Homeland Security Department to St. Elizabeths, including funds to build one DHS facility on the east campus. Norton and Gray have made the project a priority, saying it will help revitalize Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Southeast Washington.

Still, Obama's spending plan is making some city leaders nervous.

Although city leaders said they need more time to fully examine the president's spending plan, they said the administration's proposed $1.1 billion nationwide cut to housing and urban development programs could have dire consequences for D.C. residents. Norton also said many residents would be adversely affected by Obama's proposal to make reductions in low-income heating assistance.

"The president is not going to find a compliant Democratic caucus," Norton said.

Staff writer Ben Pershing contributed to this report.

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