The Senate unanimously approved the District of Columbia's $4.7 billion budget last night, affirming the largest tax cut in the city's history and funding a new program that would make college more affordable for high school graduates who live in the District.
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) said the bill, which passed on a voice vote, largely reflects the consensus budget agreed to by Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), the D.C. Council and the D.C. financial control board. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said she was extremely pleased that the city's budget for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1 emerged from the Senate mostly intact and much earlier than usual.
In addition to the tax cut -- which would reduce personal income tax rates by about one-third over five years while slashing commercial property tax rates and other business taxes -- Hutchison said the bill would make college a realistic option for more D.C. high school graduates by permitting them to attend universities elsewhere at lower, in-state tuition rates. Unlike states, Hutchison noted, the District lacks a state university system for its high school graduates.
The bill would provide $17 million to make up the difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition rates at universities. Congress still must decide whether the program will be national or regional in scope. Norton, who favors giving students the broadest possible array of options, said she is working on a compromise that would permit the program to be national.
With a flurry of recent slayings in Washington, talk of crime in the streets dominated the debate about the District bill on the Senate floor last night.
"While the economic condition of the District is improving, service delivery in the nation's capital still has a ways to go," said Hutchison, chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on the District. "Chief among these concerns are District felons walking away from halfway houses and committing violent crimes. The District will not be able to attract middle-class families to the city unless its streets are safe."
"The people in this poor city worry more about whether they are going to get hit in the head than whether they will get a tax cut," said Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations subcommittee on the District. "The people in the District of Columbia, more than anything else, need police protection."
Durbin said the city has no business granting a major tax cut next year while crime remains a serious problem. And if the city can afford the tax cut, he said, it can afford the tuition program.
However, Durbin backed away from an amendment that would have eliminated federal funding for the college tuition program. The administration has been a strong advocate for the program and intervened yesterday to protect it.
"I received a call today from the White House," Durbin said. "This college tuition program is something that is very important to the president."
Durbin harshly criticized the D.C. Council for pushing the tax cut and introduced a resolution requiring the local legislature to focus its attention in the next year on public safety, the well-being of children and numerous other quality-of-life issues. The Senate also reduced the size of a pay raise for D.C. Council members who are permitted to hold outside jobs.
Hutchison challenged Durbin's harsh critique of city officials for adopting a tax cut, saying the city must reduce local tax rates so it is competitive with the surrounding Maryland and Virginia suburbs.
"If they don't do something about income tax rates, they are never going to attract people back here," Hutchison said. "I think the mayor and the council should be commended for saying, `We are going to make our city attractive, and we are going to do it in a balanced way, and we are going to meet the needs of our children.' "
The bill did not include a controversial ban on needle exchange programs, which are aimed at reducing the spread of the HIV infection among intravenous drug users. Sen. Paul Coverdell (R-Ga.) withdrew his proposal to ban the needle exchange program after the White House threatened to veto the bill over the issue.
"The indisputable fact is that needle exchange programs merely enable addicts to continue using drugs," Coverdell said.
Durbin disagreed, saying the District has a major problem with HIV infections, which are the leading cause of death for city residents between the ages of 30 and 44. He said programs that encourage addicts to swap dirty needles for clean ones must be carried out in a way that prevents the spread of AIDS without increasing drug use.
The Senate approved an amendment offered by Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.) that would require violent offenders on parole who are caught with drugs to automatically serve the remainder of their prison terms, congressional officials said. That was approved over the objection of the Clinton administration, which described the action as "premature" because new policies already are being put into place.
The White House also said it strongly opposed a provision included in the bill that would prohibit the use of federal and local funds to pay for abortions, except in cases of rape or incest. The Clinton administration also objected to language that would prohibit the District from spending any money to provide health care benefits to the domestic partners of city employees.
The House has not yet voted on its version of the D.C. budget. Any differences between the two bills will have to be resolved in a House-Senate conference committee.
Before the bill passed by voice vote in the nearly empty Senate chamber, Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) said senators should be required to be present to vote on the D.C. budget next year. "Senators should indicate that much interest in the seat of the federal government of the United States," Byrd said. "It is the only city of its kind in the universe."