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Published in Print: April 7, 1999, as Critics Say Budget Plans May Be Unrealistic

Critics Say Budget Plans May Be Unrealistic

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New House and Senate budget plans make big promises for education spending that may be hard to keep in the face of tight overall spending limits, some congressional skeptics and education lobbyists say.

This month, conferees from the two chambers are set to reconcile their respective versions of the nonbinding budget resolution for fiscal 2000. The Republican-crafted plans were approved last month despite nearly unanimous Democratic opposition. Both versions would increase K-12 education spending, though the Senate proposal is $2.1 billion larger than its House counterpart.

In recent weeks, some have welcomed the resolutions' focus on education but expressed concerns, as well. While the plans set out big-picture projections for spending, it is congressional appropriators who make the actual binding budget decisions, and those could be hard to reconcile with the resolutions, critics say.

"The problem with the [Senate] budget resolution ... is that while it increases spending for education, it does so at the expense" of other programs, such as Head Start and higher education, argued Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn.

"[Republicans] are heightening the rhetoric, but the reality is they didn't change the budget caps," which set a ceiling on overall federal spending, said Edward R. Kealy, the executive director of the Washington-based Committee for Education Funding, a group that lobbies for federal school aid.

Highlights of Budget Resolutions
The House and Senate budget resolutions differ on the K-12 spending they would allow in fiscal 2000, but set the same ceiling for all discretionary spending. Now, the chambers must reconcile their plans, which include:

House

Senate

Function 500--Budget category includes mandatory and discretionary spending on education, job training, employment, and social services. $65.3 billion $67.4 billion
Function 501--Subcategory of Function 500, which includes funding for discretionary programs in elementary, secondary, and vocational education. $22 billion $24.1 billion
Total budget authority $536.3 billion $536.3 billion

On March 25, the House--by a 221-208 vote--and the Senate--by a 54-45 vote--passed their budget blueprints. The plans project Congress' spending priorities for the coming fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1, and over the next decade. Every Senate Democrat and all but four House Democrats voted against the Republican plans; two GOP House members crossed party lines in voting against their chamber's measure.

The Senate version calls for increasing Department of Education discretionary funding by $2.4 billion--or 7.2 percent--in 2000, to nearly $36 billion. The plan advocates an estimated $24.1 billion for K-12 and vocational education programs, a $2.6 billion increase over the fiscal 1999 level.

The House proposal for discretionary K-12 and vocational education falls somewhat short of the Senate's, at $22 billion--an increase of $500 million, or 2.3 percent, over the current appropriation. Over five years, the House plan is roughly $16 billion below the Senate's $32 billion increase for those areas.

Democrats failed in their bid to amend the Senate resolution to call for a $156 billion package of mandatory spending over nine years that would fully fund the federal government's commitment to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and President Clinton's class-size-reduction plan, which involves money for the hiring of 100,000 teachers. The amendment recommended taking 20 percent of the $778 billion that Republicans have proposed for tax cuts over the next decade.

Budgeting Pressure

Some education lobbyists and congressional aides described the proposed education funding in the resolutions as largely symbolic. They argued that the most relevant figure in both plans is the $536.3 billion in total discretionary budget authority that the resolutions would allow. That figure--which would cover all new discretionary funding in fiscal 2000, not just education--equals the statutory spending limit that Congress set in a 1997 bipartisan budget agreement. So far, Congress has opted not to lift the spending cap this year as it has done in the past, but pressure may mount to do so.

"Discretionary spending is very tight this year," warned Elizabeth Morra, the spokeswoman for Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee.

She said the Republican leadership's decision to stay within the budget cap creates a "considerable problem" for appropriators, who must pay for "hundreds of programs" from agriculture to defense to national parks. "Do you increase [education and defense] and starve everything else?" she said.

Beyond that, a crucial question will be "how the pie is divided among the 13 appropriations subcommittees," Mr. Kealy said. Another potentially important variable is a revised budget surplus estimate expected in late summer.

House and Senate conferees are expected to take up the budget resolution soon after they return from recess next week.

President Clinton's fiscal 2000 budget, meanwhile, proposes $34.7 billion for the Department of Education, a $1.2 billion increase over the current year. K-12 programs would be funded at either $20.8 billion or $22.7 billion, depending on whether $1.9 billion in "forward funded" special education money was counted. The $1.9 billion would be appropriated in fiscal 2000 but spent in fiscal 2001.

Vol. 18, Issue 30, Pages 24,26

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