Southeast projects placed on Bush budget chopping block

Saturday, February 2, 2002

Southeast Missouri State University is one of several Missouri institutions that is slated to lose out on federal funds if President George Bush gets his way.

Just last month, Bush signed the money into law as part of the $123 billion labor, education and health bill that passed Congress in December. Now he plans to ask Congress to take back funding for the home-state projects to pay off a deficit in the Pell Grant college student loan program. Pell Grants aid the neediest students.

The home-district projects are called "earmarks" by lawmakers. Derided by critics as "pork," President Bush has tried and failed to stop Congress from adding the earmarks to annual spending bills.

"It is this administration's clear position that earmarking undermines carefully crafted laws and procedures governing how to distribute federal funds designed to ensure that taxpayer dollars support national interests," the Education Department said in a written statement on Wednesday announcing the proposal.

The projects -- worth $905.8 million, according to congressional figures -- are mostly for daycare centers, after-school programs and other health and education programs.

Among them are three projects at Southeast Missouri State University: $900,000 designated for job creation, $850,000 for the River Campus initiative and $900,000 to use advanced technology to improve the curricula and programs offered by the university's new School of Visual and Performing Arts.

Southeast President Dr. Ken Dobbins agrees that the Pell Grants are important and said later this month he will recommend to the Board of Regents establishing the university's own aid program for students in the greatest need.

But Dobbins said the three home-district projects are valuable as well. The workforce development project, added by U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Cape Girardeau, will help people get better jobs and create better lives for themselves, he said.

The other two are important pieces to the River Campus project, Dobbins said.

"Those are things that will last more than a year. Those three projects are investments in the future of Cape Girardeau."

Awaiting fight

When Bush releases his new budget on Monday, he will propose including the projects in a group of proposed cuts to free up $1.3 billion for the Pell Grant program. Because the earmarks are popular back home, the administration will face a fight in Congress. And Congress controls whether the proposed cuts become reality.

John Scofield, a GOP spokesman for the House Appropriations Committee, said the shortfall in the Pell Grant program still is just an estimate and, if it becomes a reality, can be remedied in other ways.

"This proposal is dead on arrival. We are not going to do it," he said. "Those local communities will get the funds."

Still, the news is making lawmakers uncomfortable, because many of them have proudly announced the check is on the way. Besides Mrs. Carnahan and Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., Missourians who successfully added earmarks to the measure are Republican Reps. Todd Akin, Roy Blunt, Jo Ann Emerson and Kenny Hulshof and Democratic Reps. William Lacy Clay, Dick Gephardt and Karen McCarthy.

The list also includes Rep. Sam Graves, R-Mo., who successfully sought to win $273,000 for the Blue Springs Youth Outreach Unit, a partnership of the police department, school district and city in the Kansas City, Mo., suburbs.

Because the funds would start a new program to combat "Goth" culture, it was singled out with derision in a list of examples released earlier in the week by the Education Department. In an effort to defend the local projects, Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee are circulating a more complete list of the spending bill's earmarks.

At-risk students

Goths -- kids who tend to wear black and think dark thoughts -- are an at-risk group of students, said Blue Springs Police Officer Colby Lalli. The students who shot and killed 13 people in 1999 at Columbine High School in Colorado allegedly were attracted to Goth culture.

"It's not just the clothes they wear," Lalli said. "We're seeing kids on the unit, whether it be suicide or homicide, they're just one more culture in our community that is at big risk, and we need to deal with that. We need to educate people."

Graves said: "This is something that is a problem for the Blue Springs community. It's one of those priorities that my constituents asked me to fight for."

While he battles to keep the money, Graves said he thinks Congress and the White House can find the money for Pell Grants elsewhere. "We're talking about a shortfall of $1 billion in a $2 trillion budget," Graves said. A trillion is a thousand billion.

"Obviously, there is a little bit of uncertainty, but I think we can figure out how to work our way through this," Graves said. "I'm sure we can."

U.S. Sen. Jean Carnahan shared her sentiments but was angry that funds already signed into law are now being questioned.

"It just makes me mad to talk about it," Carnahan said. "We do a lot of things for big corporations, and we bail them out, but when you get in Congress and you want to do something to help children, you have to fight."

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