A $64 million shortfall at the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) earned the organization’s leader invitations to testify before two congressional subcommittees last month.
Lawmakers from both parties and both the House and Senate wanted CEO Les Lenkowsky to clarify why the corporation had to suspend enrollment in its AmeriCorps program last year, and why the trust fund that pays education awards to corps workers was $64 million short.
“I find it very difficult to understand how this corporation ... could use accounting methods to produce a $64 million shortfall. That’s a huge amount,” said Rep. Ruben Hinjosa of Texas, the ranking Democrat on the Select Education Subcommittee of the House Education and the Workforce Committee. “It reminds me of Enron.”
The corporation was a favorite target of Republicans during the Clinton administration. This time, Democrats questioned Lenkowsky unflinchingly about irregularities at the agency that is at the center of President Bush’s community service initiative.
An accounting review last fall revealed that the corporation might not be able to pay its outstanding education awards, forcing it to temporarily stop enrolling new members. The administration requested an additional $64 million from Congress in March to cover the shortfall. (“Money Melts Enrollment Freeze at AmeriCorps,” April.)
“I was deeply troubled when the corporation revealed that its standard operating procedure was to enroll more volunteers than the corporation has funds to support,” said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees CNCS.
“I support the president’s call to service,” Mikulski told Lenkowski at the April 10 hearing. “But I cannot support a bureaucracy that breaks the law, mismanages taxpayer dollars and creates uncertainty for our communities and our volunteers.”
Lenkowski attended the Senate hearing ostensibly to defend the administration’s fiscal 2004 budget request of $962.4 million. Subcommittee Chairman Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.) criticized the request, which would allow AmeriCorps to expand to 70,000 members from its current authorized level of 50,000.
“Since its inception the corporation has been plagued by mismanagement problems due to poor financial management systems and lack of quality staff and managers,” Bond said. “In light of the latest management fiasco of over-enrolling AmeriCorps members without the necessary budget resources, it is amazing that the corporation has survived extinction.”
Lenkowsky assured both subcommittees that the agency was implementing new accounting procedures and working with its inspector general and the General Accounting Office.
Gotta Have Faith
Senate Republicans stripped contentious provisions from a faith-based proposal (S 476) to secure its passage last month, ending a two-year effort in the chamber to adopt one of President Bush’s top domestic priorities.
Bill sponsor Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) removed provisions that would have allowed faith-based organizations to retain their religious character while providing social services with federal funds. In addition, the bill does not include language that would have assured faith-based organizations the right to make hiring decisions based on religion when using federal money.
Opponents of the hiring provision – an exception to the Civil Rights Act – said the language would have amounted to federal sponsorship of religious discrimination. Supporters argued that it clarified existing law, making it easier for faith groups to participate in federally funded social programs such as soup kitchens and job training, which is the primary goal of the legislation.
Without those provisions, the bill emerged largely as a tax plan to encourage greater charitable contributions. The bill would provide about $11.3 billion in tax incentives, in part by allowing a $250 tax deduction to taxpayers who do not itemize their returns.
The bill also would authorize $150 million to provide technical assistance to smaller churches and organizations to help them compete for grants, increase incentives for corporate charitable giving, increase spending for the Social Services Block Grant program by $1.4 billion and provide $33 million for maternity group homes.
In addition, the bill – known as the Charity Aid, Recovery and Empowerment Act or CARE – would simplify IRS reporting rules for charities, and would allow them to spend more money on grassroots lobbying.
The Senate approved the bill 95-5 on April 9. It now goes to the House, where Republican leaders are not expected to support the block grant increase, which President Bush also opposed.
The House Education and the Workforce Committee took action on revamping the Workforce Investment Act (WIA), which would eliminate Youth Opportunity Grants and job-training programs for students still in school.
The legislation also would lump funding for several job training programs into state block grants, to eliminate the “duplication and confusion” that is keeping the WIA “from reaching its true potential for workers and families,” Chairman John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said during committee action March 26.
Opponents of the provision said block grants would jeopardize the effectiveness of existing grant programs that have a specific focus, such as helping communities that lose a major business or industry.
The committee also delved into the faith-based initiatives arena, debating and ultimately rejecting a Democratic amendment that would have eliminated a provision in the bill that would allow faith-based organizations that receive WIA funds to discriminate in hiring based on religion. The provision, which was retained, tracks an executive order signed by President Bush in December that allows faith-based groups to receive federal grants, despite using religious preferences for hiring.
The committee approved an amendment by Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.) that would keep funding for training programs for displaced workers and single mothers out of the block grant, and an amendment by Rep. Carolyn D. McCarthy (D-N.Y.) that would ensure that states do not receive less funding for the programs than fiscal 2003 levels.
Sponsored by Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon (R-Calif.), the legislation closely mirrors the WIA reauthorization that the Bush administration proposed in its fiscal 2004 budget proposal. (“Bush Vision for Youth Funding Has Advocates Seeing Red,” March.)
The committee approved the bill, 26-21, along party lines. The bill moves to the House floor for action.
House and Senate members have been appointed to work out differences in legislation that would reauthorize child abuse programs. The Senate approved its version (S 342) by unanimous consent March 19; the House followed suit, approving its bill (HR 14) without objection on March 26.
Both bills would reauthorize the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, the Adoption Reform Act, the Family Violence Prevention and Services Act and the Abandoned Infants Act.
The primary difference between the two bills, according to the American Humane Association, concerns House language that would require hospitals to report the birth of any fetal alcohol- or drug-exposed infants to child protection services. The Senate version gives hospitals the option of making referrals “as appropriate.”
Opponents of the language said the House language could deter some mothers who used drugs or alcohol during pregnancy from seeking medical help during labor.
Youth in the Federal Budget
Although Congress has approved its budget resolution for fiscal 2004, youth-serving organizations and youth advocates are still trying to influence program funding. With the budget blueprint complete, lawmakers are turning their attention to the annual appropriations process to determine specific funding levels.
Members of Congress are also holding hearings and rewriting or proposing laws that will affect youth. Among the items with major financial impact: renewal of the 1996 welfare reform law and the Workforce Investment Act, and funding for child nutrition programs and special education.
President Bush’s fiscal 2004 budget is drawing attention as well, as Congress has not reached a final decision on the administration’s proposed tax cuts or fleshed out the details of several proposed changes, including drastic reductions in after-school funding.
Youth-related organizations are lobbying Congress through written testimony, letters, e-mails and phone calls, including a massive phone-in campaign launched in March by the Children’s Defense Fund to protest the proposed tax cuts. At the local level, organizations are lobbying their own senators and House members in an effort to shape decisions made in Washington.
For anyone in the youth field who wants to learn about the budget process or get involved in trying to influence it, the following websites are among the most useful:
The Afterschool Alliance focuses on analyzing federal action on after-school programs and advocates greater resources. In addition to specific programs, such as the 21st Century Community Learning Center program, the alliance provides information about broader topics, such as the budget resolution and its potential impact on program funding. http://www.afterschoolalliance.%20org/budget_report.cfm.
Center on Budget and Policy Priorities
The center continuously updates its website to provide analyses of numerous tax and budget policy proposals. The website includes an examination of the two tax-cut proposals under consideration in the House and Senate – a portion of the budget resolution that remained unresolved, despite final adoption of the resolution by Congress. The site also includes a section on state fiscal policy. www.cbpp.org.
Children’s Defense Fund
The Children’s Defense Fund reports how federal tax policies and proposals affect children, especially those in low-income families. The nonprofit’s site also includes links, background information and suggestions to help individuals and organizations contact local and federal officials about specific policy issues. www.cdfactioncouncil.org.
Connect for Kids
Connect for Kids offers a citizens’ toolkit for understanding the budget resolution and the proposed tax cuts. The site includes key facts, sources for data and analysis, and tips for writing letters to federal lawmakers. The budget analysis highlights policies and funding for youth-related programs. www.connectforkids.org/benton_topics1544/benton_topics_show.htm?doc_id=159840.
The Food Research and Action Center
The center has devoted a portion of its site to the congressional reauthorization of child nutrition programs. The site provides information on the programs and tracks legislative developments through its Child Nutrition Program Reauthorization Center. It also includes a section on food stamp issues and provides congressional contact information. www.frac.org.
National Center for Children in Poverty
The center provides information and strategies to prevent child poverty and improve the lives of low-income children and families. Its website contains numerous links to studies of federal policy issues, including child poverty, child care, immigrant children and welfare programs, as well as state and local information. www.nccp.org.
National Governors Association
The association tracks federal legislation and analyzes its impact on state governance and spending. It also provides policy positions. www.nga.org.
This nonprofit grassroots advocacy group emphasizes programs and policies to eliminate hunger and poverty in the United States. Its website has updates on federal legislation, including action on and implications of the budget resolution, and funding for after-school programs and child care. www.results.org.