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Focus on Issues As Bush Releases Budget, Groups


How many federal program cuts does it take to get the Jewish community ready to fight tax cuts?

President Bush is about to find out.

Within hours of the release of the president’s proposed budget for 2008, a wall-to-wall coalition of Jewish groups called on members of Congress to fight budget cuts that could adversely affect programs for the poor and elderly.

More pointedly, the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella body for Jewish federations, was circulating an internal memo that drew a direct line between the program cuts and Bush’s proposals to make tax cuts permanent.

“A significant portion of increased spending would be dedicated to tax cuts that expire in 2010,” it said. “Under this approach, a number of human service programs are slashed or even eliminated.”

It was an extraordinary analysis for an organization that in the past has focused on the program trees and ignored the ideological forest. UJC traditionally has instructed its lobbyists and activists to avoid talk of tax cuts, which sharply divide Republicans and Democrats, and keep their arguments limited to specific programs that may have bipartisan appeal.

The anonymous memo writer acknowledged that tectonic policy shift.

Noting the “mammoth” $3 trillion budget proposal, the writer said, “While the details have some relevance, it’s direction and approach are more important.”

Some Jewish officials predicted an evolution among community leaders who in the past have warned against opposing tax cuts.

“The community is more and more willing to look at the complete picture,” said Hadar Susskind, Washington director for the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the umbrella body for Jewish community relations councils, which in the past has advocated against tax cuts.

JCPA, the National Council of Jewish Women and the Reform movement have led the opposition to tax cuts. UJC, which boasts a slate of Republican donors, until now has resisted opposition.

“Some elements that argued against tax cuts are coming to understand” that taxes and revenue “are intimately connected, and at some point you lose credibility if you’re not willing to talk about the revenue side,” Susskind said.

The spending side of the budget already was coming under fire.

“We urge you to fight cuts that would be harmful to the vulnerable populations we advocate on behalf of,” said the UJC letter, sent Monday to every member of Congress.

It went on to say that programs such as the Social Services Block Grant, the Community Services Block Grant, Food Stamps, State Children’s Health Insurance Program, or SCHIP, and the Low Income Heating Energy Assistance Program “are critical to the elderly, refugees, children and persons with disabilities. Please keep these populations in mind as Congress develops its budget resolution.”

The letter was signed by 16 national Jewish groups, including UJC, JCPA and the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox religious streams, as well as 62 local groups.

In language that echoed the letter from the Jewish groups, Democrats, now the majority in both houses, pledged to battle the cuts.

“This budget represents more of the same wrong priorities: placing a higher priority on huge tax cuts for multimillionaires than on urgent national needs,” U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), speaker of the House of Representatives, said in a statement. “It cuts Medicare and Medicaid by $300 billion while failing to reinvest those funds to help cover any of the 47 million uninsured Americans, and also not providing SCHIP sufficient funds to reduce the number of uninsured children.”

Pelosi suggested that Democrats would closely scrutinize to what degree the Iraq war was siphoning off tax dollars.

“Although our troops will get the resources necessary to meet their needs, we cannot afford to mortgage our children’s future to the president’s misguided policies in Iraq,” she said.

The White House said the cuts were inevitable — and modest — considering the president’s hopes of wiping out the $250 billion federal deficit by 2013.

Rob Portman, director of the Office of Management and Budget, said the growth of programs such as Medicare for the elderly, Medicaid for the poor and Social Security was “unsustainable.”

“These looming challenges are the biggest budget problem we face,” Portman said Monday in presenting the budget. “We take a good first step by proposing sensible reforms, primarily in Medicare, that are less than a 1 percent deduction in the annual rate of growth.”

Among the more worrisome proposals, said William Daroff, UJC’s Washington director, is one that would starve caregivers for the elderly of the federal funds that allow them to offer equal services to the poor and the well-off.

“These proposals would be damaging to providers by compelling them to provide large amounts of uncompensated care to beneficiaries totaling in the tens of millions of dollars,” he said in an e-mail to JTA.

Daroff added that UJC was “not yet convinced that the time is right to `pull the plug’ on Katrina relief to states who have taken on a disproportionate amount of citizens from hurricane-affected areas.”

Democrats and residents of hurricane-affected states already had slammed Bush for not mentioning relief in his State of the Union address last month.

“Many of these states that have taken in these citizens have large metropolitan areas and, thus, sizable federated communities,” Daroff wrote.

For UJC, the one bright light happened to be a tax cut: The budget proposes that up to $100,000 in tax-free rollovers from individual retirement accounts to charity be extended beyond the program’s 2007 expiration.

The IRA rollover “added $10 million to federations last year,” Daroff said in an interview. “It’s an important incentive.”

Other areas of concern, as outlined in the internal UJC memo, include:

Cuts for independent living for seniors, from $747 million to $575 million; and for group homes for the disabled, from $240 million to $125 million;

Billions of dollars in cuts to various social-service block grants to the states that the UJC memo said “have extraordinary influence in shaping program delivery on the ground.” The cuts in such grants affect poverty alleviation, adoption services and refugee assistance;

UJC predicts at least $70 billion in immediate cuts to Medicare and Medicaid. A UJC memo described the cuts as “slashing payments from everything from payments for nursing homes and hospitals, which are already operating on razor-thin margins, to SCHIP, which would include new eligibility caps for children with family incomes as low as 200 percent of the poverty line. Instead of investing in health-information technology, which would save significant resources in the long run, the president is cutting the muscle of two programs geared to America’s neediest.”

Examining the Medicare cuts, Daroff also identified the reduction of inflation adjustments for nursing facilities and home health providers.

“The federation system has long been recognized as providing excellent care both through home- and community-based services as well as in Jewish aging facilities,” he said. Cuts “could result in millions of dollars of cuts to Jewish community providers across the nation.”

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