Policy Update: May 23, 2014

It has been an active Spring for Congress, as well as the Massachusetts Legislature, so I want to provide you with an update on some of the major policy issues affecting Northeastern related to research and higher education.

FY'15 Budget

As part of the two-year budget deal Congress reached last December, the overall budget for FY'15 was set at $1.014 Trillion, about the same level of funding as FY14, but $44 billion more than the FY13 level (allocated about equally to defense and domestic discretionary spending). Today, the Senate Appropriations Committee determined funding levels for each of its 12 appropriations bills which fund all government agencies. The House had set their levels earlier and they are closely aligned, although the Senate would spend $1.5 billion less on Defense, $1 billion more on Labor-HHS-Education, and $2.4 billion more on Transportation than the House. We are likely to see another Omnibus Appropriations bill following the November congressional elections.

To date, the House has marked up four Appropriations bills (Military Construction/VA; Commerce-Justice-Science, Legislative Branch, and Transportation-HUD) with plans to mark up the Homeland Security bill next week. The Senate has marked up two bills, Military/VA and Agriculture. Of note, the House version of the Commerce-Justice-Science Bill would boost funding for NSF and NASA, among other agencies. NSF would receive a record-high $7.4 billion, a 3.3% or $237 million increase over FY14. Additional funds are targeted to math and the physical sciences, computer and information science, engineering, and biological sciences. Social, behavioral, and economic sciences and geosciences would not receive new funds. Similarly, NASA would receive a 1.4% boost over last year to $17.8 billion. In contrast, the House proposes cutting NOAA, including a $33 million cut for Oceanic and Atmospheric Research, and a 5.8%, or $29 million, cut to the National Ocean Service. NIST would see a less than 1% increase over FY14, to $856 million. Notably, the House encourages the NIST Cybersecurity Center of Excellence to partner with universities to create a retail-specific cyber initiative in the wake of recent cyber attacks on the retail industry.

As the appropriations process moves forward, we will continue current efforts to work with our congressional delegation to advantage the Northeastern's research expertise in areas of strategic materials, cybersecurity, marine science, global health, and co-operative education.

Proposed Higher Education Legislation

Several notable higher education related bills were introduced in Congress in recent weeks. Senator Elizabeth Warren introduced legislation to allow borrowers to refinance their outstanding student loan debt at today's lower interest rates. While unlikely to pass, the bill will probably be debated in the Senate and will produce continuing conversation about college affordability issues. Similarly, Senate HELP Chairman Tom Harkin plans to release a draft re-write of the Higher Education Act by the Summer. We have been working with his staff, as well as the House, on several financial aid and innovation provisions related to co-op. Finally, Senator Claire McCaskill has launched a congressional investigation into campus sexual assault policies, which we are following closely.

Congressional Visits

In recent weeks, we were pleased to welcome three members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation to campus. In March, Congressman Jim McGovern of Worcester, a senior member of the House Rules Committee and co-chair of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, spoke to students and faculty at the School of Law about his work on global human rights issues.

Last week, we also welcomed Congressman John Tierney, Congresswoman Katherine Clark (a member of the House Science Committee), and staff from the offices of Senators Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren to the Marine Science Center in Nahant. COS Dean Murray Gibson and several faculty led a tour of the recent MSC renovations and a discussion of the cutting-edge resilience, fisheries, sensing, ecological, and climate science research taking place there.

Lastly, we were grateful that Congressman Richard Neal took time to address alumni and friends at the annual Capitol Hill Alumni Reception in Washington, DC that was held May 7th in the House Cannon Caucus Room.

Boston Innovation Poll

In late April, Northeastern released the results of its third public opinion survey on higher education innovation. The national poll surveyed the views of "C-Suite" executives regarding their views on how universities can help develop a pipeline of talent for the future. The poll included an oversample of business leaders in Boston, Charlotte, and Seattle. President Aoun discussed the findings during a well-attended panel discussion in Boston co-hosted by Northeastern, WGBH, and the New England Council.

State Issues

We've also been very active at the State House this spring. A recently-enacted state transportation bond law authorized $25 million in funding for platform construction and renovations at Ruggles Station. These funds are possible match for a federal TIGER grant that the MBTA is also pursuing. Coupled with construction of ISEC, a refurbished Ruggles would transform a major pedestrian thoroughfare thru campus and also spur economic development in lower Roxbury.

As legislators advanced the proposed FY15 state budget, we worked to secure a $3 million Senate increase in the state need-based college scholarship program. We also led a Senate effort to help parents and families save for college by establishing a new state tax deduction for contributions to the state's 529 plans. Fourteen Senators cosponsored an amendment (out of 40) to do so, but cost concerns precluded its adoption. However, we do expect it will be a focus of expected state college affordability legislation next year.

Finally, we are working to ensure that new "proof of concept" funding for new technologies coming out of universities will be incorporated into economic development legislation expected to be considered in the next few weeks.

We will continue to update you in the coming weeks on these and other issues of importance. Please contact us with any questions you may have.