Priorities are misguided in Bushwhacked budget

Posted: Wednesday, April 11, 2001

The following editorial appeared in today's San Jose Mercury News:

Now it's clear why President Bush was in such a rush to prod the Senate and the House into passing a $1.6 trillion, 10-year tax cut before taking a two-week recess. He didn't want them hanging around the Hill to read the fine print of the budget he released Monday. He knew they'd come face to face with the consequences.

Even voodoo accountants, brought out of retirement from the '80s, can't simultaneously cut taxes sharply, drastically reduce the federal deficit and maintain spending priorities that both parties and most Americans want. Something's got to give.

Fortunately, a piece of the tax cut may be the first to go. Before heading out on Friday, a trio of moderate Republican senators teamed up with all but one Democrat to pare $400 billion - about 25 percent - from Bush's tax cut. Democrats declared that a big victory, but the tax cut is still too large. And Congress will need every penny of the $400 billion to preserve programs that Bush would reduce or eliminate in coming years.

Cuts that Bush is proposing in his $1.9 trillion budget for next year include: slashing $500 million from the Environmental Protection Agency's budget; forgoing $700 million in repairs for public housing; reducing reimbursements to states for the costs of incarcerating illegal immigrants; cutting Transportation Department by 11 percent and reducing the federal share of new transit programs in 2004.

Some cuts reflect a misguided shift in priorities, like Bush's preference for nuclear power and coal over alternative sources like wind.

A few cuts are welcome, even bold: reducing corporate export subsidies and cutting $145 million to put more cops on the beat - a Clinton-era commitment the feds had no business making.

On balance, though, the budget fails the test of "compassionate conservatism" - the tired term Bush used again Monday. There are elements of it in new programs he proposed in his State of the Union address: significant increases in research for AIDS and women's health; a tripling in money for early childhood reading programs; more construction money for community health centers; a program to mentor kids whose parents are in prison.

But Bush has made room for these initiatives by paring back other health, safety and environmental protections, as evident in an analysis of the budget's impact on health care in California.

Total discretionary spending - the budget minus outlays for entitlements like Social Security and Medicare - would increase a modest 4 percent. But, apart from larger increases for defense and a new disaster relief set-aside, spending for domestic programs, everything from park maintenance to meat inspection, would rise only 1.5 percent below the rate of inflation, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington.

Federal spending, as a percentage of the economy, is the lowest in 35 years. You'd never know that listening to Bush. His demand for a $1.6 trillion tax cut is what's distorting the budget. It, not runaway spending, needs to be reined in.

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