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House backs voucher program

By Wire services
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 6, 2003

WASHINGTON - Congress took a step Friday toward turning the nation's capital city into the home of the first federally supported school voucher plan, an idea with implications nationwide.

The House narrowly endorsed private-school vouchers for poor District of Columbia students, a plan likely to win final approval when the city's budget comes to a vote next week. The Senate, too, will soon consider a plan to let district students attend private school at public expense.

The last time proponents got this far, in 1997, the voucher proposal stalled in the Senate, which may not happen this time.

If Congress adopts vouchers for one of the nation's most troubled districts, it could influence the choices of state leaders and further energize those on both sides of the issue. Six states, including Florida, offer some form of vouchers, but voters in other states have soundly rejected them.

House Democrats say they believe the voucher vote could be overturned when the budget bill comes up for a vote Tuesday. Democrats also say the close vote - 205 to 203 - signals the plan faces big trouble in the Senate.

The $10-million House measure would let at least 1,300 students switch to private schools, and the number would grow, assuming some receive less than the maximum $7,500 a year.

Four Democrats joined 201 Republicans to pass the amendment. Florida's delegation voted along party lines.

Tobacco state lawmakers agree on grower buyout

WASHINGTON - Tobacco farmers are a step closer to ridding themselves of a Depression-era price-support program they say no longer works - and getting paid in the process.

Principal House lawmakers from tobacco states agreed Friday to support a single approach to ending the program and paying farmers roughly $15-billion to give up quotas, or allotments dictating the size of their tobacco crops.

After the program had ended, farmers still could grow tobacco, but without the government-backed pricing regimen.

The new bill could be introduced next week.

Farmers say they want Congress to end the federal program, because they have experienced steep cuts in the amount of tobacco they can grow due to declining cigarette sales and increasing imports of cheaper foreign tobacco.

Farmers say they should be compensated for giving up the quotas they own or rent because the government made those assets when it created the program in the 1930s.

All the tobacco-state senators have endorsed a tobacco buyout bill that is similar to the House version, although the Senate version is a little less generous.

Also . . .

VETERANS BENEFITS: Four hundred and one retired generals and admirals have written President Bush asking him to change a century-old rule depriving disabled veterans of part or all of their retirement benefits. On Friday, key House Republicans met with veterans to talk about it.

Both full and partial restitution plans are being considered. Full adjustment, in which disabled vets would get all their retirement pay, could cost the government $58-billion over 10 years. Cheaper partial plans would link retirement benefits to the seriousness of the disability or phase in changes.

Retired Army Lt. Gen. Billy Thomas said the rule, under which the retirement benefits of disabled veterans are reduced by the amount they receive in disability pay, was put in place in 1891 by Southern legislators unfriendly to former Union soldiers.

DEMOCRATIC DEBATE: Furman University has lost a bid to host a Democratic presidential debate in January because Greenville County, S.C., does not have a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, the state's Democratic Party chief Joe Erwin said. Sites within Greenville city limits, which does recognize the holiday, are possible alternatives.

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