It sounds like an argument about tax cuts. But it's really an argument about what kind of society we want to construct.
That's what's at stake as George W. Bush today sends Congress an outline of his ballyhooed plan to slash federal spending by $1.6 trillion over the next decade.
We usually try to grasp numbers like that by imagining how many malfunctioning attack helicopters it would have purchased.
But a better measure is to think about how many kids won't get Head Start or a hot meal, how many parks won't get refurbished and how many new teachers won't be hired in hard-pressed districts such as Buffalo.
"We're extensively federally dependent," says Common Council President James W. Pitts.
It's not hard to decipher what that means. It means that, when the rosy surplus projections don't pan out -- and remember how inaccurate the deficit projections were a few years ago? -- federally dependent cities such as ours will feel the brunt when programs get cut to make up the shortfall.
It means "lighted schoolhouse" programs and community centers will take the hit. Those are the programs enlightened police chiefs credit with preventing crime.
Some will point to the arrest of a 19-year-old in last week's shooting death -- and the fact that it took place in a community center -- as proof of the failure of such approaches. But I wonder what that teen was doing when he was 7 years old. What kind of investment was made in him then?
He reportedly frequented addresses on Box Avenue and French Street. I wonder how many 7-year-olds are on Box Avenue and French Street today, and what's going to become of them. Somehow I suspect that few of their parents are going to benefit from the Bush tax cut.
In fact, I know it. We all know it. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has already done the math and figured out that Bush's plan "ignores working-poor families," to say nothing of the poor who don't have jobs. The tax cut is not for those people. The programs that will be cut are.
But it's not just the poor who should beware of Texans bearing gifts. We're talking about the quality of life for everyone.
Buffalo right now gets about $26 million in federal community development block grant funds, Pitts said. That may not sound like much in the context of a $288 million operating budget, but it's pivotal money that makes a difference after the bulk of the budget pays for the nuts and bolts -- such as personnel.
A lot of the city's cultural and recreation funding, as well as its urban development initiatives and public works initiatives such as putting in new playgrounds, repairing streets and sidewalks and cleaning vacant lots, rely on the federal funds. When the Italian Festival got more security last year, that's where the money came from, Pitts said.
Most of the city's public housing money comes from Washington, too. Two-thirds of the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority's $24 million operating budget comes from the feds, said Executive Director Sharon West. In addition, the city this year is getting $14 million in modernization funds, plus millions more to redevelop the Lakeview and Commodore Perry sites. Those projects -- part of an effort dubbed Hope VI -- include education and training funds to help make residents self-sufficient.
Who knows? If it works, one day those residents might be able to benefit from a tax cut.
But right now they won't, and neither will a region like this that relies on Washington for those programs plus transit aid, brownfields redevelopment, lake and river cleanups, and a variety of other assistance.
That's the money that will be jeopardized should fanciful GOP projections prove faulty after the tax cut has been implemented. While most of the debate has been over the fairness of the tax cut or its effectiveness in stimulating the economy, no one should miss the not-so-hidden agenda.
Shrinking those parts of government that help poor cities is just as important to congressional Republicans as showering a tax cut on the wealthy. You can't spend the same money twice. So for them, it's a twofer: help the rich and eviscerate government at the same time.
Some Republicans aren't shy in saying that that's the whole idea. The question for us is whether it's a good idea.