WASHINGTON — JULE SUGARMAN is proposing a new tax. Is it some very distant drummer he hears, or does he enjoy marching out of step with Washington pacesetters? It's just the rhythm of experience of a lifelong government bureaucrat who has seen recession, Reaganomics, and ``no new taxes'' pledges come and go, leaving social programs battered but still standing.
Since he founded the nation's highly successful Head Start program for poor preschool children 25 years ago, Mr. Sugarman has tinkered with the bureaucratic machinery of social programs from the gulag of New York City government to Washington state government.
From his vantage, he has watched America's social problems become acute, and children bear the brunt of them. The breakdown of the traditional family, the deterioration of education, the growth of poverty and drug abuse affect all children, he says.
Federal funding for children's programs in 1991 - part of Washington's epic budget battle - is up by 12.7 percent, Mr. Sugarman notes. And while that is the biggest increase in a decade, it is not enough, he says.
Sugarman wants to create a tax earmarked for children's programs, much the way funds are earmarked for the elderly, unemployed, highways, and airports. He has been quietly promoting the Children's Investment Trust among lawmakers since he returned to Washington a year ago as director of the Special Olympics.
``There is no smoke and mirrors in this proposal,'' he says of his plan. The social problems that affect children are ``a big problem that is going to cost money. Let's turn to it and provide the taxes to actually deal with the problem.''
Polls show a top concern of Americans is children's issues - especially education and drug abuse. The nation should put its money where its mouth is, he reasons.
Children's welfare is tangled in a web of 164 federal programs under six competing agencies. For example, the Agriculture Department runs nutrition programs; Health and Human Services has, among many others, mental health, foster care, Medicaid, and drug programs.
Under the umbrella of the Children's Investment Trust (CIT), which would not create new programs but guarantee more revenue to existing programs, these groups might be more likely to collaborate, Sugarman says.
The CIT would be funded by a progressive payroll tax. Paid by both employers and employees, the tax rate would begin at 0.1 percent and rise to 0.3 percent by 1995. It would add $23 billion - or about 50 percent more - to the $40.6 billion federal budget for children.
CIT would also create an independent evaluation panel under the auspices of the National Academy of Sciences to study the efficiency of the federal programs funded.
Peddling the program has been hard for the liberal veteran of line-item battles. The US Conference of Mayors and the American Association of School Administrators back the plan. Meanwhile, politicians are quick to embrace family issues, he says, but none want to talk taxes.
The National Commission on Children, appointed by Congress and the President, is developing a national policy for children. Sugarman hopes CIT will be considered by the Commission.
Though any proposal to raise money is bound to be controversial, he says it is essential to put teeth in a new policy. He recalls that the Pepper Commission's March 1990 report on the needs of the elderly was largely dismissed because it did not include financing.
What drives Mr. Sugarman, while even children's advocacy groups are skeptical that a new social services tax could be passed in these times?
Given his experience with President Johnson's Great Society antipoverty programs, Sugarman is a bureaucrat who knows what is possible when the nation is committed to a program. His recollections of the Washington environment when he opened the Head Start program in 1965 must sound like hog heaven to bureaucrats today: Everyone - Republicans, Democrats, even the hounds of the media - supported the program, he says.
``We had what from our point of view was endless money.... We were in a `can-do' era with virtually no public criticism in the first couple of years,'' and we were able to invent the program overnight,'' he recalls.
He obviously feels that a success like Head Start is still possible despite this ``skeptical, fiscally conservative era,'' he says. If only out of self preservation, it will be necessary, he says, because society has changed so dramatically.
``The kids we're dealing with today are not the same as we were dealing with 25 years ago,'' he says. And it's not just a problem in big cities. ``When I left New York and went out to the state of Washington I thought that that's going to be a piece of cake - nice, pastoral. But they have the same problems out there ... families had just fallen apart, there was high incidence of child abuse, there were drugs in the schools and in the families, there were kids that had absolutely no support from the family in educational terms.''
But Sugarman cautions that the enormity of the problem should not inspire broad, indiscriminate spending. His tax is aimed at expanding existing programs. For example, his suggestion for Head Start is that added revenue not be spent to reach more 3- and 4-year-olds, but on expanded outreach to the young children of drug abusing parents.
Most important, the extra funds for children's programs should help increase collaboration among children's advocacy groups ``which in the past spent so much time fighting with each other for a piece of the pie,'' he says.