Accord Would Let Seven States Run Meals Programs

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A compromise that would permit seven states to try running school-meals programs under block grants ended a weeks-long legislative stalemate late last month, allowing passage of a massive welfare-reform bill.

However, President Clinton has promised to veto the bill, which is closely tied to GOP plans for balancing the federal budget, because he said it includes "deep cuts that are tough on children."

Republican leaders do not appear to have enough votes to override a veto. The measure passed the House Dec. 21 on a largely party-line vote of 245-178; it cleared the Senate the next day on a 52-47 vote, also largely along party lines.

But the content of the bill, HR 4, could still survive, either in another welfare-reform measure or in legislation resulting from the ongoing budget negotiations between Mr. Clinton and the congressional leadership.

Its provisions are nearly identical to the welfare provisions that had been included in HR 2491, a budget-reconciliation bill that would make numerous changes in entitlement programs to help balance the budget. Mr. Clinton vetoed that bill early last month. HR 4 also includes some language that had been stripped from the budget bill with procedural maneuvers, as well as changes--the most significant of them the school-meals compromise--added later by lawmakers.

The massive welfare-reform bill would end decades of guaranteed federal cash benefits and medical coverage for the poor, consolidate child-care programs into block grants, and tighten eligibility requirements for the Supplemental Security Income program, which serves poor, disabled children.

Before both chambers cleared HR 4 last month, Republican leaders inserted language that would end the long-standing guarantee that children under 18 whose families are on welfare would automatically be eligible for Medicaid, the health-insurance program for the needy. Congressional leaders also agreed last month to boost the funding the bill would authorize for child-care programs by $1 billion over seven years--to a total of $18 billion--to gain needed votes from moderate lawmakers in the Senate.

A Compromise Experiment

The House-Senate conference agreement on HR 4 had been held up for weeks because lawmakers were deadlocked over the House plan to replace the school-lunch and -breakfast programs with block grants, giving states broad authority to design the programs themselves.

Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., the chairman of the House Economic and Educational Opportunities Committee, insisted on the block grant. But Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., the chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, which has jurisdiction over the issue in the Senate, and Sen. James M. Jeffords, R-Vt., had said they would not sign a conference report that contained such a plan. To move forward, the report needed the signature of at least one of them.

Mark Powden, an aide to Mr. Jeffords, said the Senate leadership asked the senator to negotiate with Mr. Goodling. The compromise was acceptable to Mr. Jeffords because its scope is limited and it would provide a block-grant experiment that Congress could study, Mr. Powden said. Sen. Jeffords signed the conference report Dec. 20.

In a statement, Mr. Goodling said that he, too, was "satisfied that our agreement will give us ample opportunity for a test of the block-grant concept to give schools more flexibility in how they operate school-lunch programs."

But the bill would retain the federal guarantee of a subsidized school lunch for every child who qualifies for one, and would require states opting for block grants to meet many of the existing federal guidelines.

Compared with current law, the bill would reduce expected spending on child-nutrition programs by $3.8 billion over seven years, primarily by lowering federal reimbursements for meals provided in family day-care homes that do not serve the most impoverished children.

Strings Attached

Seven states could apply to participate in the demonstration project. Once committed, they would have to stay in for the full five years.

In the first year, each participating state would receive the same amount of funding that the Department of Agriculture projects it would have received under current law. In each of the following four years, the state would receive an amount equal to the prior year's funding adjusted for inflation. If the state's student enrollment increased, its allocation would also be adjusted upward.

In contrast, the original House plan would have capped each state's funding, regardless of inflation or population shifts.

As under current law, states would be required to offer free meals to students from families with income 130 percent of the federal poverty line or less. States would also be required to offer reduced-price meals to students whose family income was between 130 percent and 185 percent of the poverty line.

Unlike current law, the measure would not dictate the price of a reduced-cost meal, saying only that it must be lower than the price of a full-cost meal.

States would have to commit to spending the same amount of state money on the meals programs as they had in the preceding year, and to allot the same proportion of money and meals to needy students as they had in the last year.

Participating states would have to abide by federal nutritional guidelines and could not spend federal school-meals funding on anything else.

The compromise is a far cry from the plan passed last March by the House, which would have allowed states to assume full authority over school meals, including setting eligibility policies and reimbursement levels.

The measure would also have allowed governors to decide how to divide funding among nutrition programs, and even to spend some nutrition funds on other social programs.

Nonetheless, child-nutrition advocates have concerns about HR 4.

The demonstration project is "an experiment in ending the federal commitment to guarantee school meals for kids," said Colleen Kavanagh, the manager of government affairs for the American School Food Service Association.

"We don't agree with ending that commitment," she said, "so we don't agree with setting up pilot projects to test it out."

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