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Battling Bush's digital divide

Three prominent civil rights organizations will hold an emergency meeting to combat a proposal to eliminate two programs they say are "crucial" to reducing the digital divide.

Three prominent civil rights organizations will hold an emergency meeting to combat a Bush administration proposal to eliminate two programs the groups say are "small but crucial" to reducing the digital divide.

The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR), the Leadership Conference Education Fund (LCEF), and the Benton Foundation will meet in Washington on Tuesday. They plan to discuss ways of thwarting the Republican administration's attempt to eliminate the Technology Opportunities Program (TOP), administered by the Department of Commerce, and the Community Technology Center initiative, administered by the Department of Education.

The programs, which Bush proposed axing as part of the fiscal 2003 budget, assist low-income, rural and other disadvantaged groups.

"After years of building up successful public investments to expand technology opportunity, the administration's decision to pull out comes at an unfortunate time," said Tony Wilhelm, senior director at the Benton Foundation. "With the nation in an economic slump, technology has been a proven catalyst in increasing productivity and economic growth, especially in rural and underserved communities."

The meeting will come nearly one week after the Bush administration proposed a 2003 federal budget that includes an 11 percent spending increase on information technology. The increases will generally be used to bolster computer and data security in the wake of September's terrorist attacks.

The budget would give the U.S. federal government--already the world's biggest IT spender--a $50 billion IT budget next year if approved by Congress. Federal IT spending grew from $32.9 billion in 1999 to $45 billion in 2002, according to the Office of Management and Budget.

Civil rights groups and others opposed to the newest budget proposal also want to raise awareness of the Bush administration's recent "spin" on the digital divide--the gap in computer use and skills between the wealthy and the poor.

The government released last week a survey on computer and Internet use in America, finding that at least 90 percent of children age 5 to 17 were online in 2001. The implication was that the digital divide was narrowing dramatically.

According to the Washington-based Benton Foundation, Bush and fellow Republicans have done a "stark about-face" and have abandoned the decade-long campaign to increase computer literacy among poor people. The groups planning the emergency meeting remain skeptical of the figures released last week in the survey, dubbed "A Nation Online."

The civil rights groups aren't the only ones grumbling about Bush's budget proposal, which must still be approved by Congress. Despite a double-digit increase in the federal government's IT budget in 2003, many politicians and government officials say that federal agencies also risk losing funding.

Out of 2,900 IT projects included in the federal IT budget in 2003, 400 are on a "watch list" because they haven't satisfied all the requirements the Bush administration is enforcing this year, according to Mark Forman, associate director for IT and e-government at the Office of Management and Budget. Bush unveiled his budget proposal last week.

The budget proposal is subject to congressional review before it's made final and is likely to emerge with significant changes.

"Thankfully the president has an important role to play in laying out his idea of the budget, but ultimately Congress has a big say in it," said Brian Komar, director of strategic affairs for the LCCR. Komar is coordinating the emergency meeting to save the programs now slated to be axed.

"Both programs enjoy tremendous bipartisan support," he said Monday. "We're working to educated members of Congress to get support for these programs. Tomorrow is just the beginning of what (could) be a fairly large-scale campaign."