NO NEW CUTS IS GOOD NEWS IN FEDERAL BUDGET

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The fruits of Washington’s sound fiscal policy were plucked from the vine this year in the form of a $92 billion surplus. It’s the capstone of the Clinton economic policy and Ross Perot’s sole lasting legacy in American life.

But for New York, it’s the same old story: A budget full of mixed blessings–and many sins of omission.

“We have such lowered expectations that when they stop beating us, we are relieved,” says welfare expert Liz Krueger, of the Community Food and Resource Center. “When it comes to government funds, a good news budget is one that doesn’t hit poor people even harder. But do I think people should take to the streets in joy? No.”

Here’s a breakdown on how the half-trillion dollar spending plan will affect low-income New Yorkers.

EDUCATION

A hike in school spending was the top budget headline and Bill Clinton’s proudest achievement this year, but the reality is that the increases are not as big as the White House would have the world believe.

The big news was $1.2 billion to hire 100,000 new elementary school teachers nationwide over the next six years to limit kindergarten through third grade class size to 18 children per classroom. While welcome, that money is a funding source that dries up after only one year. And the more than $100 million that New York State will receive under this formula doesn’t necessarily meet the system’s greatest needs.

That’s because a similar state scheme is already on the horizon. The Ladder program, a three-year, $225 million funding stream to hire more K-3 teachers, is scheduled to begin next year. The state program would bring class size down to 20 and leave local districts with as much as one-third of the bill, so the federal legislation will fill some gaps.

But an opportunity to fix the city’s crowded, decrepit schools went unrealized. An amendment that would have allowed $22.6 billion in federal school construction and restoration bonds over the next two years didn’t make the final cut. New York City stood to get $1.6 billion under the plan.

The federal government has never been in the school facility funding business in any significant way before, but the real reason the amendment was trimmed might have been politics. Republicans were unwilling to give credit for such a popular measure to the amendment’s main sponsor, Illinois’ Democratic Senator Carol Moseley-Braun, who is in a re-election race the GOP has identified as a must win.

SOCIAL SERVICES

Social services are in marginally better health, with incremental increases across the board and most of the House of Representative’s nastiest cuts nixed.

The Department of Health and Human Services got its biggest hike in seven years, with an $800 million increase in AIDS-related funding, including $300 million for substance abuse and treatment programs. AIDS prevention money was pushed up 5 percent to $660 million, $25 million more than Clinton requested, and the Congressional Black Caucus arranged a $110 million chunk for prevention in African-American communities.

But the social services block grant, which funds most programs, was cut nearly $400 million below last year, and the Wellstone amendment to the higher education bill, which would have opened up welfare work requirements to include two years of college or a second year of vocational training, was stripped out.

HOUSING

Department of Housing and Urban Development programs got a $2.7 billion raise this year, for a total budget of $24.5 billion. Section 8–the program that subsidizes rents for poor tenants in private housing–has 50,000 new vouchers to help families coming off of welfare, and the bill eliminated a system delay that used to freeze up 40,000 vouchers a year. Next year should see 100,000 more vouchers, and another 100,000 added in 2001.

Capital improvements for public housing increased to $3 billion, and the HOPE VI program that is demolishing the nation’s most decayed projects was boosted by 20 percent.

The Trojan horse: a sweetened version of the public housing reform bill Republican Rick Lazio has been trying to pass for two years. Tenant advocates were horrified by earlier House versions of the bill, which would have replaced some of the poorest tenants with working-class ones and introduced stiff work requirements. In the version that passed, the worst of these provisions are gone.

HUD also increased homeless housing money by 18 percent, up to nearly $1 billion–but that may not matter much here since, as of late, New York State has been much less aggressive in grabbing its share. HUD got a $11 million increase for AIDS housing funds, and through the omnibus spending bill, Congress pushed the sum up another $10 million to a total of $225 million. It’s a substantial increase, but with many new jurisdictions now eligible for the funds, New York’s share probably will climb by only 2 percent-just keeping up with inflation. There was also good news for gay rights supporters: the defeat of the Riggs Amendment, which would have denied federal funding to cities that recognize same-sex marriage.

ENVIRONMENT

For years residents of the South Bronx, home to the city’s worst asthma rates, have wondered what’s in the air, and whether it is there because of environmental racism.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency was just given the green light–and $400,000–to look into both issues. If the agency concludes that the city subjected Hunts Point to a disproportionate number of potentially harmful facilities, the city could lose its federal environmental funding. Most jurisdictions settle, though, before such drastic measures are taken. The EPA will also receive $91 million to help communities assess the level of contamination on local brownfield sites and devise plans for their redevelopment.

TRANSPORTATION

The communities that line Brooklyn’s Gowanus Expressway had hoped that the federal budget would include the $18 million that had passed in an earlier authorization bill to study alternatives to the expressway. It didn’t make it.

But with $4.6 billion set aside nationally for transit improvements in the new generation of transportation funding, the National Economic Crossroads Transportation Efficiency Act (NEXTEA), the city could take a crack at turning more drivers into straphangers. NEXTEA will drop $175 billion from 1998 to 2003 on improving the nation’s transportation infrastructure.

It boasts more flexibility than its predecessor, which expired in 1997, for states and localities to use the funds. The wide-reaching program can also claim a role in welfare-to-work: $100 million to develop private-public partnerships that will link people to entry-level jobs in transportation.