BELLINGHAM - Few details were offered Tuesday, Jan. 8, as U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Everett, met with representatives from local colleges to talk about the next steps in the fiscal cliff debate.
But one thing was certain: The fiscal cliff - a combination of expiring tax cuts and automatic cuts to federal spending - could impact higher education.
Congress approved the tax portion of the cliff earlier in January. But lawmakers delayed the spending cuts decision for two months, during which time lawmakers will debate the makeup of those cuts and whether they also will include new revenue.
"If it's all spending cuts, I can assure you that will come right down into your universities and colleges," Larsen said.
Larsen met with Whatcom Community College President Kathi Hiyane-Brown, Bellingham Technical College President Patricia McKeown, Western Washington University Vice President of University Relations Steve Swan and representatives from Northwest Workforce Council at the WCC Foundation building in Bellingham.
While he said that over the next two months, "the oxygen in the room will be sucked up" in Congress by the fiscal cliff debate, he also assured them that access to higher education and developing job skills were still on his agenda.
Officials shared their concerns that decreasing state support was putting the burden of college costs more heavily on students, many of whom rely on federal aid to help pay tuition.
"We're really concerned about who's going to be able to afford to get a higher education in the future," Swan said.
They also were worried about what would happen to grant money that has traditionally helped the schools bolster and develop programs in high-demand fields.
The more general worry, though, was about Congress itself and whether these repeated, time-consuming fiscal cliff and debt ceiling stalemates were just the new normal for lawmakers.
"This does end," Larsen said. "I don't know if we get something done in the next two months, but this does end."