Bush's budget cuts would fall near Main Street

From fewer Head Start programs to outdated police gear, the proposed federal budget calls for spending cuts close to home.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Chief Joseph Estey in Hartford, Vt., won't be replacing the 15-year-old guns worn by his officers or buying new digital cameras for his police cruisers.

In New York, the Head Start program on the Upper West Side may have to start laying off staff members and eliminate the program for children with special needs.

In Seattle, the fire department, already constrained by a tight city budget, won't be getting federal funding to put more firefighters on each truck as it had hoped.

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More than at any time in the four years of the Bush administration, Main Street will be feeling the impact of the federal budget if the president's spending plan is adopted.

From Altoona, Pa., where Amtrak stops, to the nation's congested airports, Americans could be looking at changes that will affect their everyday lives - everything from after-school programs to cotton harvests - as a result of bigger-than-normal cutbacks.

The Bush administration, for its part, argues that the reductions are needed to help keep the federal deficit - which, by its own estimate, will still hit a record $427 billion in fiscal 2005 - in check, while freeing up enough money to boost Pentagon spending and other select initiatives. Since almost 85 percent of the budget represents such items as interest on the debt, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, the bulk of the cuts are coming in domestic programs.

The White House, of course, won't get all, or even many, of the cuts it wants, if history is any guide. Nonetheless, the proposed budget, as a starting point, is stirring concern in precinct houses and principals' offices across the country as another great lobbying war gears up over the nation's checkbook.

"If the cuts are put into place, the pain will be spread more broadly than in the past," says Stan Collender, an expert on the federal budget. "But I am sure they will not stand up."

In fact, many Americans would be right in feeling as if they were watching a television rerun. The president in past years has proposed budget cuts only to see Congress fund the programs anyway after intense pressure from groups facing the ax.

"This is a little like doing business in an Arab souk in Istanbul," says Bill Frenzel, a former Republican congressman, now at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "The President makes the first offer, they sip a little tea and make a counteroffer, then everyone goes for a walk before there are other counteroffers."

Yet this year is somewhat different because the president's economic advisers have warned him that the spiraling deficits may have ramifications for the US dollar and interest rates. "He's not really been tough about the budget, but now he is," says Mr. Frenzel. "Like Reagan in 1981, he's trying to get Congress to slow down the rate of increase."

Many of the 150 programs scheduled for elimination by the administration have been to the brink before. That's the case with Amtrak, which under the president's proposal would lose its $1.2 billion in subsidy.

In 2003, the Bush administration budgeted $521 million for Amtrak and, last year, increased that amount to $900 million, half of what the company requested. Congress increased the subsidy to $1.2 billion on both occasions.

For Altoona, Pa., a mountain town where many residents travel by train to Pittsburgh, the subsidy is watched closely."It [the budget proposal] is not going to do us any good," says Mark Geis, a city council member. "[We're] a train town."

Along the Northeast corridor, officials described worst-case scenarios. Acting Gov. Richard Codey of New Jersey warns that without rail transportation, he would have to add 600 miles of roadsto handle the extra traffic.

The nation's airports will also take a hit. The president is proposing to cut the Airport Improvement Program by $600 million dollars, reducing funding to $3 billion this year. That money goes to paying for expansions and infrastructure improvements at the nation's airports. In 2000, the Federal Aviation Administration estimated the nation needed to build 50 more miles of runways nationwide to prevent aviation gridlock.

The proposed budget also calls for a hike in airport security fee, from $2.50 to $5.50 on one-way tickets. If a flight has a layover, it jumps to $8.00 each way.

Some powerful groups will be making their presence felt in Washington. One of those is the farm lobby, which is facing a 5 percent cut which totals $5.7 billion over the next decade.

"Five percent in a big year wouldn't be much," says William Lovelady, a cotton farmer working 1,000 acres in Fabens, Texas, near El Paso. "But if you barely made it last year, a 5 percent reduction in subsidies could break you."

In fact, farm groups warn if the cuts are enacted there will be damage to crop plantings and rural real estate prices and rural unemployment would increase.

Arthur Ilse, the owner of Agri-Insurance in Hondo, Texas, understands that concept. "Anything cut or taken away from the farmers will have a trickledown effect, from the gas-station owners to the equipment dealers to the field hands," he says.

He also says when considering whether to grant a farmer a loan, banks factor in not only the income from the sale of their goods, but the amount of their government subsidies as well. "And if you go messing with subsidies, that could drive some farmers out of business."

Still, others warn that the cuts could imperil public safety. For example, the proposed budget would cut $1 billion from law enforcement. One potential casualty would be Edward Byrne grants which allow police departments to hire replacements for officers working on drug task forces. "I'm afraid a lot of those drug task forces will go out of business, and they are very effective," says Chief Estey, who is also president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

Firefighters also warn that a 30 percent cut to the FIRE Act, which provides equipment, training, and staffing to local fire departments could harm public safety. In Seattle, for example, federal funds have provided protective "bunker gear."

"We need to maintain certain equipment and response levels," says Dennis Karl, executive secretary of the Seattle firefighters' union. "If that goes away it puts more strain on the men."

The tight budget may also take a toll on some family dinner tables.

About 300,000 working poor with children could be cut from the the food stamp program, according to Stacy Dean of the Center on Budget and Policy priorities in Washington.

The program that provides heating assistance for low-income families during the winter would also be cut by $182 million to $2 billion even as heating costs rise.

"This is not the time to reduce assistance for families that already can't afford to heat their homes," says Ms. Dean.

Staff writers Alexandra Marks in New York and Kris Axtman in Houston contributed to this report, as did Robert Tuttle in New York.

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