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For Jewish Groups, Bush Budget is a Case of the Glass Being Half Full

President Bush’s proposed budget is not what many Jewish groups hoped for, but it’s a lot better than they feared.

That’s what Jewish groups are saying following Bush’s recently released proposal.

Under the plan, social service programs of key importance to the Jewish community don’t suffer the potentially severe cutbacks they had feared under budget plan.

But Jewish groups say the proposed funding still falls well short of what they want.

Groups that work for refugee assistance and affordable housing for the elderly say their causes would receive a slight increase in funds under the plan, but their needs still far outweigh the money proposed.

Other programs, such as health care for the uninsured and environmental programs, are marked for cuts.

Still, Diana Aviv, vice president of public policy for the United Jewish Communities, the Jewish community’s central social services agency summed up the reaction of much of the Jewish community: “This could have been much worse, and it’s not.”

With months to go before a final budget is approved – the House and Senate have passed their own plans in recent weeks, which will need to be reconciled with Bush’s proposal – the final budget numbers are far from certain.

The cornerstone of Bush’s economic policy is an across-the-board tax cut that he claims will amount to $1.6 trillion over 10 years. The House budget largely tracked Bush’s proposal, while the Senate proposed significantly more discretionary spending than did Bush, along with a smaller tax cut of $1.18 trillion over 10 years.

Many Jewish groups, however, say a tax cut should be placed on the back burner until social service programs are sufficiently funded.

Bush also hopes to set a cap of 4 percent growth for the budget.

Bush’s priorities and restrictions leave no room for discretionary spending increases, and will make it difficult for the budget to keep up with inflation and population growth, according to the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

“This budget has the feel of a document prepared after the tax cut,” said RAC Associate Director Mark Pelavin. “The decisions don’t make sense.”

For example, Pelavin pointed out that despite the nation’s continuing energy crisis, funding was cut for research into alternative energy sources.

Bush released his budget plan April 9. Groups are still combing over the numbers and assessing the situation.

In addition, the route to a final budget is lengthy and arduous. The House and Senate plans include their own targets for spending, revenues, and the surplus, and the two houses now will set to work on the raft of annual appropriations bills necessary to implement the budget.

Congress will examine the Bush budget in detail, and over the next few months committees and subcommittees will hold hearings on relevant proposals under their jurisdiction. The deadline is Oct. 1, the start of the next fiscal year, but the government can continue functioning under an interim framework if the deadline is missed.

The migration and refugee assistance program, which funds overseas refugee assistance and U.S. admissions, would increase from $700 to $715 million under Bush’s budget. But UJC and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society have been pushing for $800 million for the program to meet the needs of a refugee population estimated at 14 million worldwide.

Aviv noted that funding for elderly housing would increase slightly – from $779 million to $783 million – but that still is far below the $1.3 billion allocated in 1995.

“We’re going backwards,” she said.

If funding had to be cut in 1995 because of the nation’s deficit, then it should increase now, when the country has a surplus, Aviv said.

Sammie Moshenberg, director of the Washington office of the National Council of Jewish Women, agreed that the surplus should be invested rather than returned to the public in the form of tax cuts.

“A surplus is what you have after all the needs are met, and we haven’t met all the needs by any means,” she said.

The budget proposal also includes language on helping faith-based organizations that provide social services. The Bush administration wants to encourage more charitable giving to such groups, and has created a federal Office of Faith- Based and Community Initiatives to foster partnerships between government and religiously based social service groups.

Jewish groups are concerned that the government will step back from its role of providing social services, and that the program may cross the lines of church- state separation.

Orthodox groups, however, back the faith-based initiative as a way to increase funding for religious-based social service programs.

And Nathan Diament, the director of the Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs, also praised the 11.5 percent boost in spending that education received in the proposed budget.

Details of Israel’s foreign aid package were not included in Bush’s budget plan, but will be designated by Congress. Groups expect the funding to include $2.04 billion in military aid and $720 million in economic support.

That marks the continuation of a process to phase out economic aid to Israel while increasing military assistance during the next nine years.

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