Federal Affairs update 5/2/2014
Lawmakers returned to Washington, D.C. this week following their two-week spring recess to face a crowded appropriations agenda. On May 1, the House passed its first two fiscal year 2015 spending bills – Military Construction-Veterans Affairs (HR 4486) and Legislative Branch (HR 4487). The measures, which were approved with broad bipartisan support, are generally considered the least controversial of the 12 annual appropriations bills.
In addition, the House Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) Appropriations Subcommittee cleared its fiscal year 2015 spending legislation, which includes $51.2 billion ($398 million below the fiscal year 2014 enacted level) in total discretionary funding. The bill is likely to be considered by the full committee next week, with possible floor consideration later this spring.
In other developments this week, the House Ways and Means and Judiciary Committees approved four bills that would address the issue of sex trafficking in the U.S. While national data on sex trafficking remains relatively sparse, there is increasing concern in California and the rest of the nation regarding the number of youth who are being exploited and are also part of the child welfare system.
The legislation, among other things, would require further data to help understand the breadth of the nation’s sex-trafficking problem. Additionally, the bills would seek to clarify that youth in the sex trade should be legally considered victims rather than criminals; promote collaboration among numerous governmental agencies and community organizations coming into contact with such youth; and, provide initial federal funding to serve domestic trafficking victims.
It should be noted that Los Angeles County Supervisor and CSAC Board Member Don Knabe participated in an event at the National Press Club this week where he discussed the County’s initiatives to address child sex trafficking. He also announced the release of a National Association of Counties’ (NACo) survey on the problem. Among the findings, the NACo report indicates that nearly nine out of 10 large counties identify child sex trafficking as either a major or minor problem in their jurisdiction.
The Obama administration released April 29 an ambitious four-year, $302 billion transportation reauthorization proposal called the Generating Renewal, Opportunity, and Work with Accelerated Mobility, Efficiency, and Rebuilding of Infrastructure and Communities throughout America Act, or simply the GROW AMERICA Act. The proposed funding level in the president’s plan would fill the Highway Trust Fund’s projected shortfall of $63 billion and support $87 billion in new transportation spending.
Additionally, the proposal would rename the Highway Trust Fund
the Transportation Trust Fund. The new-look fund would include
separate highway, transit, rail and multimodal accounts. Under
the plan, existing gas tax revenues would continue to flow
exclusively to the highway and transit accounts, supplemented by
new revenue generated through corporate tax reform.
All told, the GROW AMERICA Act would provide $199 billion over four years for the Federal-aid highway program, or $9 billion more than is currently authorized under MAP-21. The measure also includes a significant increase for public transit programs, as well as $10 billion for a new multimodal freight grant program with rail, aviation, port and other multimodal projects eligible for funding. In addition, the blueprint would provide $5 billion in mandatory funding for the popular TIGER grant program and continue the TIFIA financing program at current levels ($4 billion).
With regard to project streamlining, the plan emphasizes concurrent (rather than sequential) agency reviews, avoiding duplicative processes, and improving transparency and accountability. In addition, it would create a new Interagency Infrastructure Permitting Improvement Center within the Department of Transportation (DOT), which would be responsible for working to improve project delivery and streamline the federal permitting and regulatory review process.
Finally, the administration’s proposal includes a controversial provision that would relax the current ban on tolling. In general, states have been barred from tolling on interstates, unless the funds generated are used to add lanes or otherwise increase capacity. Pursuant to the proposal, the funds generated from new tolling would have to be used for repair and reconstruction of roadway systems.
While transportation advocates largely applauded the president’s reauthorization measure, Congress is unlikely to approve the necessary tax reforms needed to fund it. However, with the current transportation law set to expire on September 30 and the Highway Trust Fund expected to run dry in August, the proposal will serve as an initial blueprint for the relevant authorizing committees. Incidentally, this is the first detailed, long-term transportation bill the Obama administration has sent to Congress.
State Criminal Alien Assistance Program
As indicated above, the House CJS Appropriations Subcommittee cleared its fiscal year 2015 spending bill by voice vote. Although the measure would cut spending by nearly $400 million compared to current levels – including an overall reduction in investment for state and local justice assistance grant programs – the bill would provide a $30 million funding boost for the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program (SCAAP). The proposed funding increase represents a positive development for CSAC and California’s counties, which have worked with the California congressional delegation and others in an effort to boost funding for SCAAP.
In the Senate, the Appropriations Committee has yet to release its draft CJS spending legislation, though is expected to do so in the coming weeks.
Water Resources Development Act
This past week, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee held a hearing to examine pending water resources projects that fall under the purview of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The projects are likely to be included as part of a final Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) reauthorization bill.
According to the Corps, an additional six water resources projects have been vetted by the Agency and the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) since the House and Senate approved their respective versions of WRDA reauthorization legislation (HR 3080/S 601). Another eight projects have received sign-off from Corps officials but await final approval from the assistant secretary of the Army for civil works and OMB.
It should be noted that both the House and Senate WRDA bills include language championed by CSAC that would require the Corps to undertake a comprehensive review of its levee vegetation removal policy. Although the Corps in March announced that it was reversing its policy on an interim basis – thus permitting local flood control agencies to keep trees and other vegetation on levees – the statutory language will likely remain in the final water resources bill in order to ensure that the Corps’ interim policy is made permanent.
According to key members of Congress, a long-awaited final WRDA package could be completed by next week.