Federal Dateline

Balanced Budgets on a Comet's Tail

by Nick Penning

What can we say that’s good about June? School usually ends this month; this humble author celebrates a birthday (nothing momentous since he got into AARP last year), and you thank God you had sense enough to air condition the central-office building.

In Washington, Congress is finally getting up some steam right about now. With sufficient time now past for members of the House and the Senate to get to know one another (about 52 percent were elected to their first term in either 1994 or '96) and budget deadlines facing them all over the place, Congress must step up to the plate and play ball before the next recess on July 4.

Two enormous obstacles face Congress: both major political parties have promised tax cuts, and both are committed to a balanced budget. Not a balanced budget this year, mind you—they’d never get it at a time when they want to cut back on revenue through tax cuts—but a balanced budget by the year 2002. Isn’t that the year when Hale Bopp (the first legitimate comet of our generation you can look up and see!) sends its tail through earth and makes us all alien beings?

Sounds good enough to me. That would mean Congress never would have to balance the budget because in 2002 it would be under the control of an alien force. Some argue it is.

Healthy Hikes

What will they really do? Since both parties (even the president, who can’t run again) constantly poll the American public on its wishes and desires at any given moment, let us be thankful that education pops up as No. 1 with regularity. The Republicans will not want to give President Clinton his tax cuts for education, so they’ll probably give healthy increases to Title I and special education.

Interestingly, they finally have processed the message that special education is eating into regular education budgets. As a result, they (Congress) promised to pay school districts for 40 percent of excess special education costs, at a time when local school districts are lucky to get up to eight percent these days. Will we get 40 percent? Don’t hold your breath.

Tax cuts? Look for the GOP to finally pass its capital gains tax cut and maybe some family tax cuts of, say, $500 per child under 18. (Wouldn’t you know it, our youngest just turned 18!) The president wanted that, too, in 1993-94, so perhaps that would be enough incentive for him to sign a lopsided (how many people really have capital gains?) tax bill.

In the end, expect a decent education appropriation for Fiscal Year ’98, at least for the major federal programs.

Just keep in mind, the president has no say over what budget Congress passes. Clinton presents his budget wish list and Congress uses it as a starting point and then carves it up. Title I, especially concentration grants for urban and rural areas of high poverty, is in good favor. Title I basic grants will be studied hard by the GOP, especially since Clinton wanted to cut it by a laughable $4 million.

Possible Threat

That cut, offered by the administration, may be used as a signal by the Republican leadership to trim Title I basic grants in favor of increases in concentration grants and special education.

Those of you who depend on Title I basic grants, the $6 billion core of this $7.2 billion program, should drop everything right now and respond to the threat of a cut. Ask your Title I director to spell out how important Title I basic grants are to your district and the children you serve: who is served, how they are served, and what differences Title I has made in their lives. Then ship that information pronto to your representative in Congress and both of your U.S. senators.

Without your strong support and that of your colleagues across the nation, anything could happen to Title I basic grants. Yet we know too many children depend on this support for it to just slowly vanish. But, vanish it will, if you fail to bring your members of Congress to your school and show them what the Title I basic grant actually does in the classroom. You are our best salesperson in this vital mission, please do your part. And let us know how the visit went.