Peoria Journal Star

February 7, 2006

Budget a mixed bag for Illinois
Illinois farmers, veterans, students to be squeezed

By Dori Meinert
OF Copley News Service

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Illinois farmers, veterans and schoolchildren would be among those feeling the impact of budget cuts that President Bush proposed Monday.

Sending his $2.77 trillion fiscal 2006 budget request to Congress, Bush sought to increase defense spending and tackle the deficit by decreasing money to many popular domestic programs. In the past, Congress has been reluctant to go along - and might be even more so in this election year.

"Our children are lagging behind academically, and states are struggling to fund public schools, yet the president is proposing the largest education cuts in history," said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.

Durbin, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said he agrees with the president's plan to boost funding for math and science programs, but he criticized the Bush plan for seeking to eliminate all federal funding for vocational education and for cutting funds that assist disabled students.

Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said the president's budget plan to increase veterans' health care fees will cause 800,000 veterans to lose their health care.

Also, more than 40 Illinois communities split $12.9 million for Byrne Memorial Grants this year, which helps communities fight violent crime and assist crime victims related to the methamphetamine problem in the country, Obama said. Next year, they would receive nothing under the president's proposal.

"The American people wanted to believe last Tuesday night that this president was ready to lead this country in a new direction, but they now see a budget that says more about this president's priorities than words ever can," Obama said.

While Illinois Democrats predictably railed against the White House budget proposal, Republicans also were less than enthusiastic about it.

"Typically these things work out where there's a pretty good compromise budget that's passed that includes some of the president's priorities and some of our priorities," said Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Peoria. "It won't be everything he wants and it won't be everything we want."

LaHood disagreed with the president's proposed cuts in farm aid. The White House budget proposal would cut commodity payments to farmers by 5 percent and impose stricter limits on payments, reducing the annual cap on subsidies to farmers from $360,000 to $250,000.

"I've got to look out for my farmers. They work hard. There are so many costs that they have no control over," said LaHood, who sits on the House Appropriations Committee.

Congress has rejected earlier calls for cuts in the farm program. Farm groups, including the Illinois Farm Bureau, are hoping that it will continue to do so.

The president's budget proposal also calls for cutting assistance to low-income households for residential heating costs. In a year when many Illinois residents have seen their heating costs double, the White House plan would cut funds to Illinois by more than $11 million, from $113 million the state received last year, Durbin said.

The president's proposal would eliminate a firefighter-hiring program that brought $1.3 million to Illinois departments in 2005.

Amtrak, which serves 30 Illinois communities and carries about 2 million riders annually in the state, would receive $900 million for fiscal 2007. The White House tried to eliminate funding for the rail service last year, but Congress approved $1.3 billion.

The president's plan includes $50 million for a program aimed at retrofitting old diesel engines to reduce air pollution, which would benefit Caterpillar Inc.'s growing retrofitting business.

"Caterpillar enthusiastically supports this initial funding to help our customers retrofit their existing engines with clean diesel technology," said Caterpillar group president Doug Oberhelman. "This important step will help our environment by reducing emissions while supporting the vital economic role the diesel engine plays in our nation's economy."

Allen Schaeffer, executive director of the Diesel Technology Forum, called the president's proposal "a critical first step," but urged Congress to fund the program at the $200 million authorized.

Additionally, Illinois would be a leading beneficiary of increased spending on highway work, with $1.2 billion, about $300 million more than in the last budget year ended Sept. 30.

Bush's budget request also includes $400,000 for ongoing studies for the Illinois River Basin restoration project.

Dori Meinert can be reached at (202) 737-7686 or Journal Star Business Editor Paul Gordon contributed to this report.