D.C. Update 05/10/2013
Lawmakers returned to the nation’s capital on May 6 after a one
week recess to face a crowded agenda. In the Senate, a number of
issues of interest to California’s counties have continued to
dominate the chamber’s legislative calendar, including
immigration reform and a reauthorization of the Water Resources
Development Act (WRDA). The Senate also approved this past week
legislation endorsed by CSAC that would give states the ability
to collect sales taxes from out-of-state Internet retailers.
In the House, lawmakers spent much of the week debating legislation (HR 1406) that would allow private employers to provide time off instead of premium pay to employees who work overtime. Under the bill, non-exempt private sector employees would be allowed to accrue up to 160 hours of compensation time a year; employers would be required to pay cash wages for any unused time at year’s end. The legislation was approved on a near party-line vote, with Democrats charging that the bill would threaten workers’ rights.
The House also approved legislation (HR 807) that would allow the Department of the Treasury to continue borrowing once the debt ceiling is reached, but only to pay down the principal and interest on government debt held by the public and on obligations to Social Security. The measure, approved on a near-party line vote, will likely not be considered in the Senate and is opposed by the Obama administration. According to opponents of the bill, the measure would prioritize holders of public debt, including foreign governments, over military members and other individuals who receive government assistance.
It should be noted that the House is expected to turn more of its attention to immigration reform, remote sales tax legislation, and WRDA in the coming weeks and months.
Remote Sales Tax
On May 6, the Senate approved remote sales tax legislation – the Marketplace Fairness Act (S 743) – by a vote of 69-27, with the support of Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Barbara Boxer (D-CA). Specifically, the measure would give states the ability to collect sales taxes from out-of-state Internet retailers.
Among other things, S 743 would require online merchants to collect the full destination rate – the applicable state and local tax rate – on each sale made over the Internet. In order to benefit from the Act, however, states would be required to streamline their sales tax administration. It should be noted that retailers with less than $1 million in remote sales annually would be exempt from any collection requirements.
Prior to clearing the measure, the Senate voted to adopt a manager’s amendment that would delay implementation of the bill for six months, rather than three months as initially proposed. Additionally, the amendment would prohibit states from imposing sales tax requirements on Internet merchants that are any different from those required of “brick and mortar” retailers.
House leaders have yet to lay out a timeline for when they plan to consider the issue, but the strong vote in the Senate should put additional pressure on the lower chamber to act. Unlike the Senate, the House is more likely to proceed through regular order, meaning the Judiciary Committee will consider the bill before it moves to the House floor. For his part, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) has indicated that he is open to considering a remote sales tax bill, but is concerned about the challenges faced by businesses in collecting and remitting sales taxes for various states, counties, and municipalities.
Water Resources Development Act
After finishing work on the remote sales tax measure, the Senate moved to consideration of its WRDA reauthorization bill (S 601). Senators held the first series of votes on May 8, dispensing with several amendments to the water resources measure.
While the bipartisan WRDA package remains highly popular among members, there has been some controversy surrounding the bill as environmentalists have strongly criticized the legislation’s language designed to expedite environmental reviews of projects that fall under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps).
Somewhat complicating matters, the Obama administration released on May 6 its Statement of Administration Policy (SAP) on the legislation. While the White House stopped short of issuing a veto threat, it did register deep concerns with certain provisions of the bill, particularly the bill’s project streamlining provisions. In its SAP, the administration states that the “bill constrains science-based decision making, increases litigation risk, and undermines the integrity of several foundational environmental laws…”
In an effort to address some of the key sticking points in the bill, Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer released a manager’s amendment that includes a number of changes to S 601. Among other things, the manager’s amendment would require the Corps to collaborate with other resource agencies that are responsible for reviewing the environmental impacts of a project. It also would require the concurrence of all agencies involved in developing a coordination plan and setting deadlines for completing reviews of a project.
It should be noted that the manager’s amendment kept intact the legislation’s levee vegetation provisions. Under Section 2020 of the bill, which is strongly supported by CSAC, the Secretary of the Army would be required to conduct a comprehensive review of the Corps’ levee vegetation removal policy. In doing so, the Secretary would be required to consider factors that promote and allow for variances from the national guidelines on a regional or watershed basis. Additionally, the bill would require the Secretary to solicit and consider the views of the National Academy of Engineering as part of the review process.
Finally, the manager’s amendment settles a dispute between authorizers and appropriators over control of the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, which is designed to pay for dredging and other harbor projects. Under the revised language, the amount of money available from the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund would be increased, starting at a minimum of $1 billion in fiscal 2014 and increasing annually until fiscal 2020, when all dollars directed toward the fund would need to be available for dredging and other port activities. Currently, only about $900 million of the $1.6 billion collected annually through user fees on shipping companies is spent for such purposes.
Looking ahead, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has filed cloture on the bill, setting up a possible final vote on the WRDA bill for sometime next week.