Update from Washington, D.C. 04/12/2013
Washington, D.C. was buzzing with activity the week of April 8 as
members of Congress tackled a number of thorny issues and the
Obama administration released its long-overdue fiscal year 2014
budget proposal. In the upper chamber, two high-profile items -
gun control legislation and immigration reform – took center
stage as various factions of senators worked to hammer out deals
on what have typically been among the most divisive issues on
On the issue of gun control, key senators announced mid-week that they had developed compromise proposals on background checks and gun trafficking, two of the major sticking points in the larger debate. Legislation curbing gun violence has been a top priority for President Obama in the aftermath of last year’s school shooting in Connecticut.
With regard to background checks, Senators Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Patrick Toomey (R-PA) reached a bipartisan accord that would require screenings on all commercial gun sales. The proposal stops short of a requirement included in the underlying Senate gun-control bill (S 649), which would mandate background checks for nearly all firearms sales, both private and commercial. Toomey’s endorsement of the compromise plan could attract much-needed GOP support and increase chances that a final bill will advance in the Senate.
The background check agreement appears to have provided new momentum for the gun-control legislation, despite doubts raised by Republicans as to whether the bill would violate an individual’s Second Amendment rights. On Thursday, the Senate agreed by voice vote to proceed to S 649, paving the way for the chamber to consider amendments to the bill beginning next week.
With regard to immigration, a bipartisan group of senators working on a comprehensive reform package continued this past week to forge the details of a measure that would enhance border security, provide a pathway to citizenship for people who are here illegally, and create an employee verification system. According to several members of the group, which is known as the “Gang of Eight,” the senators are very close to unveiling their long-awaited legislation; the complexity of the issues, however, have bogged down the process of drafting the bill.
Nevertheless, a hearing on the yet-to-be-introduced measure is scheduled for April 17 in the Senate Judiciary Committee. According to the committee’s chairman, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), a May 6 markup on the bill remains a “realistic” expectation.
State Criminal Alien Assistance Program
The Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) recently posted its fiscal year 2013 State Criminal Alien Assistance Program (SCAAP) application guidelines. In a positive development for California’s counties, the agency has indicated that it will continue to provide reimbursement to jurisdictions for the “unknown” category of SCAAP inmates in fiscal year 2013.
BJA’s decision to provide SCAAP payments for the costs of detaining an individual whose immigration status is unable to be confirmed by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was unexpected. Last year, after CSAC lobbied heavily to prevent the aforementioned policy from being instituted in fiscal year 2012, BJA indicated that it was postponing the change, but only for one year. A number of key members of the California congressional delegation joined CSAC in advocating against the agency’s ill-advised policy.
If DOJ’s policy had been implemented in fiscal year 2012, California’s counties likely would have seen their SCAAP payments cut in half. Conversely, the state of California and most other states would have seen their SCAAP allocations significantly increase under the proposed policy shift. The reason for the state-county discrepancy is that states house a much lower percentage of unknown inmates in their correctional facilities in relation to county jails.
Like last year, BJA is encouraging SCAAP grantees to work collaboratively with DHS in several program areas in order to increase their inmate status verifications. Specifically, the agency is suggesting that jurisdictions work with DHS through the Secure Communities program, the 287(g) program, and with the Law Enforcement Support Center (LESC).
It should be noted that nearly all jurisdictions nationwide already participate in the Secure Communities program, with a number of others, including several counties in California, actively participating in the 287(g) program. Many jurisdictions also actively engage with the LESC, which is administered through U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Incidentally, participation in these programs has been shown to be of limited value as it pertains to detainee identification since an inmate’s status can only be verified if he or she has had previous contact with federal immigration authorities and is included in the DHS and Secure Communities databases.
To view BJA’s announcement regarding the opening of the fiscal year 2013 SCAAP application cycle, please click on the following link: BJA FY13 SCAAP Application.
Secure Rural Schools (SRS)
On April 3, House Natural Resources (NRC) Chairman Doc Hastings (R-WA) unveiled a draft SRS reauthorization proposal – Restoring Healthy Forests for Healthy Communities Act. Among other things, the draft measure would require that the U.S. Forest Service actively manage its commercial timber lands to produce revenues. Furthermore, it would require the Forest Service to produce at least half of the sustainable yield of timber each year and share 25 percent of receipts with the counties. It should be noted that the draft includes a placeholder for an extension of SRS payments, which would allow counties to transition back to payments from active forest management.
The NRC’s Subcommittee on Public Lands held a legislative hearing on April 11 to consider Chairman Hastings draft bill, as well as a number of other public lands measures. Notably, Trinity County Supervisor Judy Morris was among those called to testify.
President Obama’s Fiscal Year 2014 Budget
On April 10, President Obama released his $3.77 trillion budget proposal for fiscal year 2014. Under the administration’s proposal, the nation’s deficit would drop to $744 billion beginning next fiscal year, or 4.4 percent of GDP, and continue a steady downward decline through the budget’s 10-year timeframe. The debt, on the other hand, would rise $8.1 trillion to $25.3 trillion over the next decade.
The budget also proposes to repeal sequestration and to replace the automatic, across-the-board spending cuts with other deficit-reduction measures, including spending cuts to entitlement programs and new tax increases. For example, the budget would reduce agriculture subsidies and shrink payments to certain Social Security beneficiaries by using a less generous measure of inflation to calculate cost-of-living increases. The budget also proposes billions in savings from Medicare and other health programs, in part by raising Medicare premiums for wealthy retirees and by negotiating for lower prescription drug prices. On the revenue side, the budget would require those making $1 million or more annually to pay at least 30 percent of their income in taxes, after gifts to charity.
The Obama budget also includes a variety of new spending initiatives, including new investments in transportation projects and education programs. For example, the budget again proposes new stimulus-style infrastructure spending, to the tune of $50 billion in fiscal year 2014 for roads, bridges, and transit systems.
All told, the budget would increase spending in fiscal year 2014 by nearly $160 billion beyond what the Congressional Budget Office projected earlier this year. The increase is attributed to the budget’s new spending, as well as the cancellation of the sequester.
Incidentally, the administration’s budget is roughly two-months behind schedule due to sequestration and the recent fiscal cliff debate. As a result, the document has not been considered in the context of the development of the House and Senate’s fiscal year 2014 budget resolutions (H Con Res 25/S Con Res 8), which have already approved by their respective chambers. Nevertheless, a number of committees in both the House and Senate will hold hearings to scrutinize various aspects of the White House’s budget.
Below is a summary of some of the key policy and spending initiatives included in the Obama administration’s budget proposal.
Secure Rural Schools
The president’s budget proposes a five-year reauthorization of the Secure Rural Schools (SRS) program with funding through mandatory appropriations, beginning with $278 million in fiscal year 2014.
State Criminal Alien Assistance Program
The president’s budget does not include funding for SCAAP. Last year, the administration proposed $70 million for the program. It should be noted that Congress appropriated over $250 million for SCAAP in fiscal year 2013, which does not account for the yet-to-be-applied five percent cut under sequestration.
The White House budget once again includes language that would overturn the Supreme Courts’ Carcieri v. Salazar decision. In Carcieri, the Court ruled that the secretary of the Interior’s trust land acquisition authority is limited to those tribes that were under federal jurisdiction at the time of the passage of the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) of 1934. The president’s budget does not propose any reforms to the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ land-into-trust process.
The budget for the Department of Interior also indicates that Indian Affairs is taking a wholesale look at current regulations that address how Indian groups apply for and receive Federal recognition as an Indian Tribe. According to the budget, Indian Affairs expects to distribute a draft for review by Tribes, as well as non-federally recognized Indian groups, with the goal of publish¬ing a proposed rule by the end of 2014. The revisions will address both the application process and the criteria for Federal recognition.
Affordable Care Act Implementation
The budget does not include cuts to the Medicaid program. Of interest to several counties, pending cuts to the Disproportionate Share Hospital (DSH) program would be delayed for one year.
Tax Exempt Status of Municipal Bonds
The administration is proposing to cap the value of the tax exemption for interest paid by municipal bonds. Under the budget, the value of tax benefits would be limited for the top two percent of earners to 28 percent from the current 35 percent. This is the third time that the Obama administration has suggested capping the value of the tax exemption for high-income earners. The independent, bipartisan tax-reform group known as Bowles-Simpson also proposed limiting the tax break.
The White House has proposed $50 billion in new stimulus funding for transportation programs in fiscal 2014. Of this one-time funding, which also was proposed in fiscal year 2013 but not agreed to by Congress, $40 billion would be reserved for “fix-it-first” projects intended to bring the nation’s roads, bridges, and transit systems into a state of good repair. The remaining $10 billion would be available to local governments and communities on a competitive basis through programs like the Department of Transportation’s TIGER grants.
The administration also is proposing an expanded transportation trust fund. Under the budget, the White House is requesting that Congress transfer $214 billion in general fund tax revenue over six years to the Highway Trust Fund (HTF) to support the administration’s plans to develop a high-speed rail network.
Under the proposal, general fund dollars would supplement fuels taxes and other user fees in order to pay for the president’s five-year, $40 billion rail plan. The budget would fully fund last year’s transportation bill (MAP-21), which will deplete existing HTF revenues by the time the law expires next year. According to the White House, the additional $214 billion in general fund revenue would be offset by the declining costs of military operations overseas.
To view the Administration’s proposed fiscal year 2014 funding levels, click here.