A bipartisan group of more than 40 governors today will urge President Bush and Congress to approve $200 million for the beleaguered AmeriCorps program, as Bush and a key House lawmaker indicated that they would not support the emergency funding.
Led by Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) and Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell (D), the state executives warn in a letter that AmeriCorps efforts across the country would be "devastated" by the loss of thousands of volunteers engaged in such activities as teaching in urban schools, working with Head Start children and building homes.
"We hope you will do everything possible to ensure that these programs are not closed or drastically cut . . . and that we can continue to tap the idealism and patriotism of so many of our citizens who want to serve," wrote the governors, including Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R), the president's brother. "Organizations that have been built over a decade cannot be eliminated this year and rebuilt the next."
The Senate on July 11 approved $100 million for the struggling national service program. But the funding is not included in the supplemental spending bill the House is to take up today, although some lawmakers say enough support exists to add it.
Putting more money into the program would be unwise because the Bush administration only recently began to address serious management problems at AmeriCorps' parent agency, the Corporation for National and Community Service, said Dan Gage, a spokesman for Rep. James T. Walsh (R-N.Y.). Walsh is chairman of the appropriations panel that funds AmeriCorps.
Walsh "wants to ensure that reforms do take place," Gage said.
Last year, AmeriCorps approved more volunteer positions than it could financially support, leading Congress to impose a temporary freeze on enrollments and cap volunteers at 50,000 for 2003. Continuing financial and management problems, however, have left the program 20,000 volunteers short of that. The Bush administration last week announced an overhaul in AmeriCorps' management.
Gage noted that the House is scheduled to take up another appropriations bill today that includes $386 million for AmeriCorps in fiscal 2004 -- an increase of 37 percent from this year and enough to increase the program's enrollment to 55,000.
Bush has praised the Clinton-era program repeatedly and promised to expand it to 75,000 volunteers next year. Lindsey Kozberg, an administration spokeswoman, said she had not seen the governors' letter and could not comment.
Bush believes the supplemental bill should be limited to paying for response to emergencies such as flooding, wildfires and the crash of the space shuttle Columbia, Kozberg said. "The president's request was absolutely restricted to responding to those natural and man-made disasters," she said, adding that Bush would continue to seek funding for 75,000 AmeriCorps volunteers in 2004.
Reps. Harold E. Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.) and Tom Osborne (R-Neb.) said Friday that at least 224 lawmakers -- a majority of the House -- have signed a letter calling for the restoration of AmeriCorps' emergency funding.
"AmeriCorps volunteers serve vital needs in communities across America," Ford said. "That's why a bipartisan majority of Congress supports saving these national service positions from devastating cuts."
Wendy Kopp, president of Teach for America, an AmeriCorps program that enlists recent college graduates to teach for two years at schools in low-income areas, said 2,700 participants won't get the $4,725 education grants they were promised unless Congress approves the $100 million.
"We're praying for an 11th-hour turnaround," Kopp said. "We shouldn't let bureaucratic errors in a government agency come down on all these innocent programs . . . that make it possible for young and older people to have a real impact in communities."