Thursday, October 13, 2011

2011 ACCT Congress: Update on Federal Legislative Priorities

An overview of community college federal legislative priorities held during the 2011 ACCT Leadership Congress had its share of good news for two key community college programs -- Pell Grants and the $2 billion Community College and Career Training Grant program. However, public policy experts from ACCT and AACC warned trustees that it is no time to become complacent.

“The most important thing to come away with is that the Budget Control Act... is going to mean that Congress is going to have less money to send overall on our programs in the coming years,” said David Baime, AACC senior vice president for government relations and research. “It’s going to mean some belt-tightening for our institutions, regardless of what happens.”

With the Pell Grant maximum maintained at $5550 as part of a $17 billion agreement, Pell Grants were the only federal program to receive added funding as lawmakers deliberated this year. But as a bipartisan supercommittee prepares to identify at least $1.2 trillion in savings through 2021, Pell will be on the table with all other federal programs. “No matter what you’ve heard regarding Pell Grants being protected, basically the supercommittee can make cuts to anything,” said Jennifer Stiddard, ACCT senior public policy associate. “We need to be diligent.” Congress may also consider addressing the unprecedented growth in the program, which now provides $11.3 billion in aid to 3.5 million community college students, by changing the eligibility criteria in ways that impact community colleges, Baime warned.

The $2 billion Community College and Career Training Grant (CCCTG) program has also survived budget cuts thus far, and 32 states and consortia received awards in September, said Jim Hermes, AACC director of government relations. Overall, community colleges and their partners submitted more than $3 billion in proposals for the $500 million earmarked for first-year funding, making it critical that community college advocates fight to maintain funding for the remaining three years of the program. “We’ve already fended off two semi-serious threats to finding for this program, and we anticipate there will be more,” Hermes said. “There’s incredible demand for these programs, and ... continued vigilance will be required for all of us.”

President Obama’s $447 billion American Jobs Act includes $5 billion for modernizing community college infrastructure -- double the amount proposed in the American Graduation Initiative. While the bill has stalled, Congressional leaders may consider individual pieces of the bill in the coming months, said ACCT Director of Public Policy Jee Hang Lee. “Hopefully, modernization will be part of the puzzle,” he said.

As Congress and the supercommittee look to broader deficit reduction measures, budget deliberations have been firewalled between defense and non-defense discretionary spending -- “which is very good for our institutions, because in the past we’ve seen education dollars raided in these situations,” said Stiddard. However, it is not clear what cuts the supercommittee may wind up proposing, and if any deficit-reduction plan it proposes fails to pass Congress later this year, automatic across-the-board-cuts of 7.8 percent on all non-defense federal programs will take place.

While all education spending represents only 3 percent of the overall federal budget, “those cuts represent a huge impact on us,” Stiddard said. “We in the education community really need to push that the impact of this is that we [may] not survive those cuts.”

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