The Senate Appropriations Committee approved the District's $8.2 billion 2005 budget yesterday after a failed attempt to require the city to help fund a popular federal college tuition aid program for D.C. students.
Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) objected to a proposed 50 percent increase for the D.C. Tuition Assistance Grant Program, from $17 million to $25.6 million, saying the initiative is costing too much.
Durbin's call for the District to pay $1 to match every $2 in new federal aid was opposed by Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.). They were backed by Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio), chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on the District, and Sen. Mary Landrieu (La.), ranking Democrat on the D.C. subcommittee.
Durbin settled for a $4.2 million increase for the program, to $21.2 million, on the condition that the District plan for cost-sharing in coming years.
"I'm the easiest vote on this committee when it comes to education," said Durbin, a co-sponsor of the program, which began issuing grants in 2000, "but apparently from the viewpoint of the District, there is no end in sight . . . . If it is to become an entitlement along those lines, so be it, but let's discuss that."
The budget bill now goes to the Senate floor. The House approved a total of $25.6 million in its version of the bill. Differences between the two bills will be negotiated in conference.
If the tuition program does not receive the entire proposed increase, that should not have an impact this year because a $9 million surplus remains from past years. But D.C. officials said growing participation and nationwide tuition increases require more aid. Without additional funds, officials said, grant levels might be cut or income limits could be established by fall 2005, cutting off wealthier families.
The program provides up to $10,000 a year, or $50,000 over a lifetime, for D.C. high school graduates to attend participating public colleges and universities across the country at in-state or discounted tuition rates.
Students at private facilities in Maryland and Virginia or historically black colleges and universities can receive up to $2,500 a year, or a lifetime total of $12,500.
The looming debate over who should pay and who should benefit reflects the most serious growing pains for the program, passed with bipartisan support from regional members of Congress, civic leaders and parents. Norton and Williams say the initiative has reduced the flight of families and bolstered the District's middle class.
City leaders say they are obligated to reserve program funds a year in advance to guarantee aid levels this fall to student applicants who will not draw down grants until the 2005-06 school year.
"The District is doing the conservative, right thing, so that no matter what Congress does . . . we have money on hand to pay these tuition bills," Norton said.
The District "should not pay one penny" into the program, Norton said, because education from kindergarten through 12th grade is a more critical need and Congress acknowledged from the outset that the District cannot support a state-equivalent public university system.
The program helped increase the number of D.C. high school graduates enrolling as freshmen in U.S. colleges from 1,750 in 1998 to 2,230 in 2002, a growth rate five times the national average, Williams has said.
In other budget matters, the Senate approved $560 million in federal aid for the District, including $195 million for D.C. courts, $182.5 million for parole services, $8 million for a new bioterrorism and forensics laboratory, $5 million for foster care improvements and $7 million for a multi-agency emergency communications center.
Both the House and Senate budget bills would ease cash reserve requirements for the District, freeing up $50 million. Unlike the House, the Senate would allow the District to spend local tax dollars on free drug-needle exchange programs and to lobby for voting representation in Congress and for statehood. The Senate bill also requires the National Park Service to lease Kenilworth Park to the city for 50 years for recreational facilities.
Paul S. Strauss (D), a D.C. shadow senator, said that if the funding provision for voting rights lobbying work survives, "that could be a significant advantage to the District if the national landscape changes" after November's elections.