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O.M.B. To Release Impounded Library Funds

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Washington--Faced with the threat of a lawsuit by several states and a finding of illegal impoundment by the U.S. Comptroller General, the Office of Management and Budget (omb) now says it will release more than $19 million in federal funds that the Reagan Administration had been withholding from public libraries.

The Education Department (ed), which administers library programs, will notify librarians around the country of the amount of their grants sometime this week, said Sally H. Christiansen, the department's director of budget service.

The attorneys general of New York, Iowa, California, and Kentucky--who have been preparing a class action suit to recover the funds on behalf of the librarians--now are likely to cancel the action, according to a spokesman for the American Library Association.

The dispute over the funds, which were appropriated by the Congress last year under the Library Services and Construction Act, had been brewing since the Education Department distributed library grants in December.

Maximum Level

Although the fiscal 1982 continuing resolution requires the department to fund the library programs at $71.5 million, the department distributed grants based on a maximum level of $51.8 million for the year.

That is the amount President Ronald Reagan requested for library programs in his Sept. 24 budget.

"Librarians all over the country were surprised when the awards were made at the lower level," said James A. Nelson, director of the Kentucky Department of Library and Archives.

Mr. Nelson said his state had been expecting to receive more than $1 million in federal library funds this year, based on the continuing resolution. The President's budget request would lower the grant by one-fourth, he said.

At the time the grants were issued, Education Department budget officials said they were instructed by the omb to distribute the lower amount of funds because the Administration was planning to ask the Congress to rescind, in either another continuing resolution or an appropriation bill, the disputed $19.7 million.

A letter sent to the omb by the General Accounting Office, the investigatory arm of the Congress, declares that the withholding of funds by the Administration is illegal because the library act is "a mandatory spending statute," funding for which can be changed only by Congressional action.

Unless legislation is enacted to lower the library appropriation, the withholding maneuver "is not available to the executive branch," the Feb. 5 letter from Comptroller General Charles A. Bowsher states.

The federal budget office sent its rescission request to the Congress on that same day. The proposal, which must be acted on within 45 legislative days, is likely to encounter opposition from Democrats on the House Education and Labor Committee.

Carl D. Perkins of Kentucky, the committee chairman, and Peter A. Peyser of New York intervened on the librarians' behalf with the Comptroller General. Mr. Peyser called the Administration's impoundment action "outrageous."

"After the Congress struggled for months to finally reach an agreement with the Administration on the figures for the continuing resolution, the Administration totally disregards those figures and acts on its own," he said.

Representative Peyser's office now is investigating whether the ed also has impounded funds for the career-education program. A total of $9.6 million in grants for that program, which should have been sent to state education departments in December, is being withheld by the department pending action on a rescission proposal, according to an aide to Mr. Peyser.

"If we find that withholding that money constitutes an illegal action, we'll let them know we won't stand for it," said Scott Williams, press secretary to the Congressman.

The issue has not affected most other education programs because funds for most programs are disbursed in the fiscal year following the one in which they are appropriated--a concept known as "forward funding." Fiscal 1982 funds for most education programs will not be awarded to states and school systems until the 1982-83 academic year.

The library and career education grants--which are distributed to states according to a Congressionally mandated formula based in part on state per-capita income--are awarded in the fiscal year for which they are appropriated. Such a procedure is known as "current funding."

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