Service plan to grow slowly, panel says

January 15, 1993|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- President-elect Bill Clinton's sweeping national service program for college students and others will have to grow slowly, accommodating only 100,000 people after three years, a national commission predicts.

That would be a significant reduction in scale for a program that Mr. Clinton referred to as a GI Bill for college students during the campaign.

The Commission on National and Community Service yesterday released a report that enthusiastically endorses the concept of a national service corps but warns against creating a mammoth new federal bureaucracy to run it. Instead, the program should rely on new or expanded community-based service opportunities.

"Based on our experience, one has to be very careful about how one would expand national service opportunities," said Catherine Milton, executive director of the commission.

A key problem, she said, is a lack of well-trained people to lead the service programs.

Just as troubling is the federal deficit. Clinton advisers are now talking about a program costing $2 billion annually after four years,compared with an $8 billion price tag mentioned by Mr. Clinton during the campaign.

"They're nibbling away at the thing," said Frank Slobig, policy director of Youth Service America, an advocacy group for volunteer programs. "What initially sounded like a universal bill of rights guarantee-type option is rapidly diminishing."

Mr. Clinton yesterday named his campaign chief of staff, Eli Segal, to run his national service program, something he said was a "very, very important" priority.

Mr. Clinton is expected to unveil his legislative proposal for national service soon. The concept was a favorite with the crowds at Mr. Clinton's campaign rallies and enjoys strong support on Capitol Hill.

The most expensive plank of his plan would allow students to perform community service -- as a teacher's aide, for example -- as a way of paying off their college loans.

There are some 30,000 people now involved in full-time service programs, many of them in local or state conservation corps. That number could double in a year and reach 100,000 after three years, as long as funding is available, the commission report predicts.

Turning the national service idea into legislation has been complicated, said William A. Galston, a professor of public affairs at the University of Maryland who has coordinated national service planning for the Clinton transition team.

"I don't think anybody is deterred by the complexity or the magnitude of the challenge," said Mr. Galston, who was named to a White House policy job yesterday. "It just means we all have to look at the options very carefully."

One potential opponent has been organized labor, which fears that national service participants will take jobs away from its members, particularly in local government.

"Will they be doing work that might be done otherwise by regular public employees?" said Markley Roberts, an AFL-CIO economist.

The Commission on National and Community Service, established by Congress in 1990, last year handed out $62 million in grants to local service and volunteer programs. The commission has promoted not just service programs, for which participants are paid, but also volunteer work for people of all ages.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat who was a sponsor of the legislation that created the commission, yesterday praised its efforts to "rekindle the habits of the heart." She also urged Mr. Clinton to use the commission's work as a "blueprint."

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