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Senate Backs $29 Million for Asbestos Act

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The Senate voted last week to add $29 million in funding for the Asbestos School Hazard Abatement Act to an appropriations bill that had contained no money for the program.

But the counterpart House bill includes no funding for ASHAA, and the future of the program remains precarious as the budget measure moves to a House-Senate conference that could begin this week.

"This is a very important win, but it's still an uphill battle,'' said Michael Edwards, a lobbyist for the National Education Association.

Education lobbyists were buoyed by the strength of the Senate vote to sustain the program, which Congress has maintained for eight years despite the objections of Presidents Reagan and Bush. President Clinton also declined to request funding for it.

Senator Paul Simon, D-Ill., introduced an amendment to restore funding. The Senate voted 31 to 68 against an effort to table it, and later passed the amendment by voice vote. It would take ASHAA funding from "unobligated'' funds in the Environmental Protection Agency's budget.

HR 2491, which would fund the Veterans Affairs and Housing and Urban Development departments, as well as independent agencies such as the E.P.A., was approved 91 to 9.

Key Legislator Opposes Funding

Despite the outcome, the Senate debate featured a lengthy statement by Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., explaining her opposition to the amendment. Ms. Mikulski chairs the subcommittee that oversees the spending bill, and observers agree it will be difficult to retain funding over her objections. She said ASHAA is not an E.P.A. priority.

"I am so reluctant to oppose this amendment because it is filled with good intentions,'' Ms. Mikulski said, but funding for asbestos abatement "jeopardizes the agency's ability to carry out other high-risk programs.''

Asbestos in schools is "a real concern,'' but is a relatively low risk compared with other hazards, she argued.

But proponents have not given up.

"I'm fairly optimistic, because it was a strong, bipartisan, non-ideological vote,'' said Joel Packer, a lobbyist for the N.E.A.

He said at least half the senators who are expected to sit on the conference committee voted for the ASHAA amendment. But half the conferees will come from the House, where there is less support for such funding. (See Education Week, Sept. 15, 1993.)

Proponents say the $29 million appropriation, a mixture of grants and loans, could actually be worth as much as $70.5 million to school districts because they are not required to pay interest on the loans.

This year, ASHAA distributed $36 million, which has been worth an estimated $76.2 million to school districts, according to the E.P.A.

Since ASHAA was enacted in 1985, it has provided over $422 million to 239 school districts.

Schools have spent an estimated $6 billion on abatement since passage of the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act of 1986, which required them to test for the potential health threat and develop management plans.

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