Bush plans $8 billion to fight social ills

Funds in 1st year of term would go to charitable, religious organizations

July 23, 1999|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- In the first detailed proposal of his presidential campaign, George W. Bush said yesterday that he would spend $8 billion during his first year in the White House promoting charitable and religious-based alternatives to government social programs.

By making the activist side of his agenda the first part to be highlighted -- rather than more traditional Republican themes of lower taxes and more military spending -- the GOP front-runner underscored his determination to move his party to the center and attract independent and Democratic votes in the 2000 campaign.

"It is not enough to call for volunteerism," Bush said, implicitly criticizing past Republican efforts, including those of his father, former President George Bush, who celebrated voluntary action at the local level through his "thousand points of light" program.

Instead, the Texas governor said, the federal government must join private and religious groups in their fight against poverty and other social ills. He proposed tax incentives to encourage private giving and called for direct federal aid to charities that work with the children of prison inmates, offer after-school programs, treat drug addicts and provide homes for unwed mothers.

Bush said he would set aside a 10th of the non-Social Security budget surplus in 2001, or about $8 billion, to aid the "armies of compassion."

In laying out his proposal, Bush said he was seeking a third way between those on the left who see government as the only real answer to social problems and those on the right who think, "If government would only get out of our way, all our problems would be solved."

"I know the reputation of our government has been tainted by scandal and cynicism. But the American government is not the enemy of the American people," he said in the text of his remarks released by his campaign.

`These aren't crumbs'

He took a swipe at Vice President Al Gore, who has criticized Bush's "crumbs of compassion" even as he rushed to embrace faith-based institutions himself as an alternative to costly government social-service programs.

"These aren't crumbs to people whose lives are changed," Bush said. "They are the hope of renewal and salvation."

Charities cannot take the place of government programs, such as Medicaid, which provides health care to poor families, he cautioned. But he said they can still play a crucial role in delivering social services.

Much of the $8 billion would go to inner cities, which Republicans have largely abandoned over the past quarter-century. Bush has made a point of campaigning in those areas, including a visit last week to East Baltimore.

"For many people, this other society of addiction and abandonment and stolen childhood is a distant land, another world," he said. "But it is America. And these are not strangers. They are citizens, Americans, our brothers and sisters."

Bush called his plan "the next bold step in welfare reform." A provision in the 1996 welfare reform law opened the door to government partnerships with charitable, religious and private institutions, by allowing states to contract with those groups to provide family assistance services.

Bush's proposal came under fire from a Republican rival, Steve Forbes, who is making a strong effort to appeal to social and religious conservatives. Forbes condemned it as a Democratic-style "big-government" solution.

"Taxpayers will give more to charity when the federal government stops taking so much of their money," Forbes said.

The Texas governor, who says he supports an unspecified cut in income tax rates, noted that 70 percent of taxpayers -- those who don't itemize -- are ineligible to deduct charitable deductions from their income taxes. His plan would give them the same incentive to give as wealthier taxpayers, he said.

Bush outlined his proposal at a church in Indianapolis, the hometown of his chief domestic policy adviser, Mayor Stephen Goldsmith. A local program that Goldsmith has pushed, the Front Porch Alliance, is considered a model for linking city agencies with religious and community groups to reduce crime and revitalize neighborhoods.

Bradley seeks reforms

Meantime, Democrat Bill Bradley criticized Bush and Gore as he unveiled a campaign finance reform plan. The former senator said that if he won the nomination, he would challenge his Republican opponent to renounce the raising and spending of "soft money" for issue ads in the general election campaign.

Bradley asserted that the two front-runners had already directed their fund-raisers to begin raising "soft money" -- unlimited contributions from corporations, labor unions and wealthy individuals -- even though both say they support restrictions on such donations. Spokeswomen for both Gore and Bush denied that any such orders had been given.

In a Washington speech, Bradley offered a lengthy list of reform proposals, including public financing of congressional elections and free television time for candidates in the 60 days before an election.

Bradley's surprising money-raising success -- he has collected more than $11.75 million, much of it from wealthy donors -- is one of the main reasons he is being taken seriously as a Gore challenger.

He defended his aggressive hunt for campaign cash, saying, "When you run for office, you have to communicate. The law says you have to raise money to communicate."

Pub Date: 7/23/99

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