WEB - GUEST OP - Cooper, bush's budget

by: CENTRAL OREGONIAN - Scott Cooper serves as the Crook County Judge. He can be reached at:

The President released his fiscal year 2006 federal budget on Monday. The spending plan proposes federal outlays of $2.5 billion in the upcoming fiscal year and a reduction in the annual deficit of $390 million. That sounds fine to members of the public I've talked to who are all concerned that the federal spending recently has been just a little bit out of control.
   But the numbers don't tell the whole story. Hidden in that document are a few proposals that we in Crook County need to be aware of. Here are just a few things to watch for contained in the budgets of the several major departments.
   Agriculture: The neediest segment of our community actually gets a boost in the budget this year. The President's proposal includes increasing overall spending 9.6 percent, much of it in the form of food assistance to the poor and to low-income mothers with children and to increased free- and reduced-lunch subsidies. Despite the valiant efforts of St. Vincent dePaul in Prineville and agencies like it around the State, they simply aren't keeping up with the growing population of the hungry. In a country as rich as ours, no child and adult incapable of taking care of himself should ever have to go to bed hungry. Increased federal efforts in this regard are on track.
   Education: The President plans to decrease spending by 1 percent over 2005, in part by eliminating federal support for vocational education. That's too bad, because it hits home in Crook County. A disproportionately high number of rural students enroll in vocation education, learning skills in everything from agriculture, shop, carpentry, auto repair, computer-aided drafting, video and hospitality. Many of these students will not go to college, and these programs offer skills which are put to work right after graduation. Federal funding helps purchase the supplies which make these programs possible. In addition, the programs are popular with some students who are not college-bound and often give them a reason to finish school _ including those less desirable but important classes like English, math and science. Cut the vocational programs, and the drop out rate goes up. That helps no one, and the fact that we've been down this path before unsuccessfully is a point which seems to have escaped federal notice.
   Environmental Protection Agency & Housing and Urban Development: The President proposes cutting funding, which the nation's cities use to upgrade public facilities-everything from drinking water systems to sewer plants to fire halls. The drinking water program gets an 83 percent whack. The Community Development Block Grant programs gets a 22 percent cut. Adding insult to injury, the mandate to spend remaining community development funds is broadened to include "economic development" projects (whatever that is.) "Less money for more projects," isn't likely to be well received, and certainly will potentially harm fast-growing communities like ours which rely on these funds as essential budget supports. On the bright side, the budget does increase funding to help low-income families pay rent and proposes increases in spending to improve and upgrade run-down public housing.
   Justice: The President proposes to increase funding for the Federal Bureau of Investigation by 11 percent and the Drug Enforcement Administration by 4 percent to combat terrorists and cartels. Few argue with that laudable goal. Unfortunately, the budget proposal also virtually eliminates the popular COPS program, which has in the past helped both Crook County and the City of Prineville add law enforcement staff. We certainly would have considered using it again to help meet the needs of our rapidly growing community had the opportunity presented itself, but if the President has his way, the full bill will fall on local taxpayers.
   Transportation: The President proposes a decrease of 1 percent over 2005, but that's not the whole story. The cuts come largely from reduced subsidies to Amtrak, which is no big deal. But cuts in airport spending are another matter. Reductions are planned in spending to reduce airport congestion and increase airport safety. Funding is provided for less than half the air traffic controllers the FAA says it needs in 2006. At the same time, funding is increased by 49 percent (to $100 million) to build a new Department of Transportation headquarters. What's going on here? If my choice is ensuring that the airplane I'm riding in departs and lands on time and doesn't fall out of the sky on the way to its destination _ or a new office for bureaucrats, I know which side I'm on. At a time of fiscal austerity, this budget appears upside down.
   Treasury: This department gets a 3.9 percent increase, which sounds OK when you realize some of it will go toward detecting and stopping financial crimes. But it's not so great to realize that this budget also includes $265 million to increase the auditing capacity of the IRS. Maybe my memory is fuzzy, but it seems that the President called the current tax system "a mess" during his campaign and promised to simplify on veterans' issues. Leading up to the election, both George Bush and John Kerry fell all over themselves trying to position themselves as the best friend of the veteran. Post-election, the budget comes out, and we find that the President proposes to start charging some veterans who use the already near-decrepit veterans hospital system up to a $250 co-pay! That's some reward for that group's support. To be fair, the President does propose increases on basic medical services and spending on inpatient treatment for mental health, and drug and alcohol treatment, but that doesn't wipe out the sting of the co-pay proposal.
   We all want the deficit reduced, and we all believe in efficient government. But I can't help but be concerned that out of 23 federal departments, only 12 were targeted for reductions. I wonder if our plans to double outlays to foreign governments (from $1.5 billion to $3 billion) to support economic and governance change initiatives would be better spent caring for the folks at home. Will the $100 million earmarked in competitive grants to states to find ways to promote happy marriages make a difference? How many farmers could be insured, how much food, and housing could be purchased, how many community infrastructure improvements could be paid for out of the $511 million set aside to promote nuclear energy, $260 million to promote hydrogen technology or $286 million earmarked to build the world's first zero-emissions coal plant?
   I agree with the President's priorities of protecting our country, demonstrating compassion, advancing the federal agenda and eliminating duplication, and this budget gets us part of the way there. Now it's up to us to let our congressional representatives close the loop and use the revenues identified by the President to bring about the best results.
   Scott Cooper serves as the Crook County Judge. He can be reached at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
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