Peoria Journal Star   

February 8, 2005

Illinois farmers and veterans to be hit hard by proposal
Bigger, Brighter, Bolder

By Dori Meinert
of Copley News Service

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Illinois farmers would be hit hard by President Bush's proposal to cut farm subsidies next year.

Veterans also would pay more for health care under the White House's proposed $2.57 trillion budget released Monday, while the poor and disabled who are covered under Medicaid would take a hit.

On transportation, one of Illinois' top priorities, the administration's plan contains some potentially good news for the state.

The White House has increased what it said it wants to spend on transportation over the next six years to $283 billion - $27 billion more than what Bush was prepared to allocate last year and similar to what the House passed last year. The figure also is closer to the $299 billion that House and

Senate negotiators had tentatively reached last year, when time ran out for action.

A final deal

The Bush administration's proposal increases the chances that a final deal on a transportation bill will be worked out. The current program has been extended six times since 2003.

While the overall funding level would increase, Illinois officials can't be sure how the state would fare.

"We don't really know how it all shakes out for Illinois until Congress passes a bill," said Illinois Department of Transportation spokesman Matt Vanover.

Amtrak, which has said it needs $1.8 billion to operate in fiscal 2006, received no funding under the president's plan. Amtrak serves 30 Illinois communities and carries about 2 million riders annually in the state.

Meanwhile, farm groups are certain their members will oppose Bush's proposed 5 percent, across-the-board cut on farm program payments that would reduce the annual cap on subsidies to farmers from $360,000 to $250,000.

"Farmers are very concerned about reductions in program spending in the farm bill, which they rely on as a safety net when prices are low," said Chuck Spencer of the Illinois Farm Bureau.

"The farm bill was passed as a six-year program and farmers made long-term business decisions based on a six-year program. ... It took a lot of work on everybody's behalf to put that in place," Spencer said. "If there were changes, it will certainly have impacts on producers' business decisions."

Heavy on defense

A budget that shifts money from domestic programs to defense initiatives would do little for the Midwest and Northeast because those regions have few military bases or defense contractors, according to an analysis by the Northeast-Midwest Institute, a Washington-based research organization.

The president's proposed budget includes substantial cuts to programs important to the region, including manufacturing, community development and housing, waste-waste treatment and after-school programs, the analysis said.

However, Congress typically alters the president's budget requests substantially during the appropriations process.

"A budget is more than a collection of numbers. It's a reflection of values," said Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., on Monday. "What the president is sending to Congress today reveals a wide gulf between the president's speeches and his real priorities."

Rep. Lane Evans, D-Rock Island, criticized the Bush administration for cutting projects "that are essential to the economic growth and the health and welfare of working families."

Republicans took a cautious approach to the spending blueprint for fiscal 2006, which begins Oct. 1. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Plano, called it "a good start."

In one of the few areas of the budget plan that identifies local projects, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' request includes $214,000 for Farm Creek reservoir, a flood-control project in East Peoria.

However, the budget proposal includes no money for the Peoria Lakes dredging project, which involves removing silt from the river and building islands to support wildlife habitat and serve as a buffer for further silt build-up.

River project

The White House had requested $100,000 for pre-construction engineering and design work for the current fiscal year, but Congress failed to appropriate funds.

The corps plans to begin construction of the upper island this year using money from the Illinois River basin and ecosystem restoration project, which includes the entire river. Because of funding constraints, the island will be lower than was originally planned, said corps spokesman Ron Fournier.

While the president's budget plan would allocate $1.5 million to the overall Illinois River restoration, it would restrict the use of those funds in fiscal 2006 to studies only.

Jim Baldwin, a board member of the Heartland Water Resources Council, said he was disappointed about the Peoria Lakes project.

"This project is already five years old, and all they ever get money for is studies," he said.

The budget proposal contains no funding for the controversial lock and dam expansion on the Illinois and Mississippi rivers. Corps' officials didn't request any because the project hasn't been authorized, Fournier said.

Congress last fall approved $13.9 million for engineering and design work that will keep the work going, he said.

On another front, environmentalists praised the Bush plan for naming the Mississippi River restoration project as a national priority.

The administration requested $34 million for the long-running habitat restoration program for the Upper Mississippi and Illinois rivers.

Congress allocated $175 million for fiscal 2005.