Congress approved the District's 2005 budget yesterday, increasing funds for a popular federal college tuition aid program for D.C. students and refraining from partisan fighting that tied up past bills.
Free of controversial social measures -- a federal school voucher initiative delayed last year's bill by four months -- the $8.3 billion budget sailed through the House, 377 to 36, and the Senate, without objection, for final approval just six days into the fiscal year that began Oct. 1. President Bush is expected to sign the measure shortly.
"They drove the train directly to the station with no unnecessary stops along the way," said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), thanking House and Senate leaders.
No new social riders were attached to the budget, though D.C. officials noted that Congress maintained a ban on use of city tax money for abortions for low-income women. Senate negotiators failed to overturn House-backed prohibitions against spending D.C. funds on drug-needle exchange programs to prevent blood-borne diseases or on lobbying Congress for statehood or voting representation.
By keeping the needle exchange ban, Congress "continues to disenfranchise and discriminate against people living with HIV/AIDS" in the District, which has the highest rates of infection and at-risk population among U.S. cities, said A. Cornelius Baker, executive director of the Whitman-Walker Clinic.
House and Senate appropriations committee leaders approved a measure to increase the federal aid to the D.C. Tuition Assistance Program to $25.6 million from $17 million, overruling objections by Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.). The senator had assailed the increase as a "disturbing" sign of runaway spending in a program he helped create. Durbin released a letter to the District's chief financial officer, Natwar M. Gandhi, Monday calling for an independent congressional audit and deferring until next year his push to require District cost-sharing.
"It is not my intention to deny the benefits of this tuition assistance program to students," Durbin wrote, but "the District needs to demonstrate a financial commitment to this program if it is to meet the growing demands."
Durbin has said that a $8.6 million increase was unwarranted while the four-year-old program carries a $9 million surplus.
D.C. officials said that growing student participation and nationwide tuition increases are driving up costs and that the program must obligate funds one year in advance to guarantee financial aid levels to students, who apply for assistance the fall before the school year in which they enroll.
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 at in-state or discounted tuition rates.
Students at private institutions in Maryland and Virginia or at historically black colleges and universities can receive up to $2,500 a year, or a total of $12,500.
"In a region where you need a college education to get any kind of decent job, you now have a 30 percent increase in young people going to college," Norton said. She said the four-year-old program is keeping District taxpayers from moving to Maryland or Virginia for their children to attend state schools. "The large return to the federal government is unspoken, but it cannot be denied."
The bill includes $1.1 billion in capital spending, plus $560 million in federal payments to District programs such as courts and prisons and for member earmarks, sometimes known as pork.
For the second year in a row, in a sign of confidence in local autonomy, Congress agreed to allow District officials to begin spending non-federal funds, the lion's share of the budget, while waiting for Congress to approve the bill.
Norton said the change gives a bill to permanently free the District's local budget from the requirement of a congressional vote a "very good chance of passage" next year.
"The District deserves this treatment and respect," she said. "The District deserves it with seven balanced budgets."