House, Senate, administration battle over volunteer program

WASHINGTON — One of the most popular volunteer programs in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the National Civilian Community Corps, is facing a budget crunch.

The corps, which is under the AmeriCorps umbrella, is a 10-month program for 18- to 24-year-olds to do short-term projects for six to eight weeks in areas of need. The approximately 1,200 volunteers a year receive small stipends, making the program a target for fiscal conservatives, who think it isn't government's role to pay for charity.

The House of Representatives has passed an appropriation for fiscal 2008 that would cut funding for the corps from $26 million this year to President Bush's proposed $11 million. But the program has a booster on the Senate Appropriations Committee, Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran, the panel's powerful ranking Republican.

"It's a volunteer program that has meant so much to the people of Mississippi," Cochran said in an interview.

He's pushed for an increase to $31 million, which the appropriations panel has approved and which awaits Senate action. The Senate bill would open two more training campuses for volunteers, one in Vicksburg, Miss., and the other in Vinton, Iowa. As part of belt-tightening this year, the corps closed its campuses in Washington and in Charleston, S.C. Its remaining campuses are in Sacramento, Calif., Denver and Perry Point, Md.

Since Katrina, the National Civilian Community Corps' volunteers, who typically work in teams of 10, have been a welcome sight on the Gulf Coast.

"You can't go anywhere on the gulf to any civic meeting that when you mention the NCCC, you don't get a standing ovation," said Marsha Meeks Kelly, the executive director of the Mississippi Commission for Volunteer Services.

The volunteers have played a major role in reconstruction projects.

"We actually can't live without our NCCC," said Jeannie Antonetti, the volunteer manager at Habitat for Humanity-Mississippi Gulf Coast. "They're a great asset to our organization."

The corps has made a commitment to the gulf region — Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas and Florida — to have 60 percent of its members rotate through the area.

"We hope we can be successful in negotiations with the House," Cochran said. "I'm hopeful that we can get a generous appropriation for this activity."