Update from Washington, D.C. 06/15/2012
With the House in recess the week of June 11, the focus on
Capitol Hill was on the upper chamber, where members of the
Senate spent the majority of their time debating a five-year Farm
Bill reauthorization package (S 3240). By week’s end, senators
had filed over 250 amendments, with most proposals focused on
farming and agricultural-related issues. Republican leaders,
however, also were attempting to force votes on a series of
regulatory issues that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV)
indicated were non-relevant and non-germane to the
Despite several attempts this past week aimed at reaching an agreement on the number and scope of amendments that will be considered on the floor, Senate leaders have been unable to settle the matter. Absent a bipartisan deal, the Farm Bill will remain in a holding pattern.
For her part, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) has introduced an amendment to the Farm Bill that would restore a $4.5 billion cut to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as Food Stamps. The amendment also would require a $500 million annual investment over ten years in the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Snack program, which promotes the consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables in elementary schools.
The effect of the Senate bill’s SNAP cut would be to place further restrictions on the “Heat and Eat” program, which coordinates SNAP and the Low-Income Household Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) by providing small cash LIHEAP benefits directly to SNAP households. Fourteen states already take advantage of the option, with California planning to implement the program next year. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the SNAP cut would mean that an estimated 500,000 households a year would lose $90 per month in benefits.
It should be noted that the Senate did manage to consider several amendments this past week, including a proposal by Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) to block grant SNAP. The amendment failed on a 65-33 vote.
Looking ahead, much of the policy debate on the Senate floor will likely revolve around regional differences in how the reauthorization bill treats different crops grown in various parts of the country. Senators representing southern states, in particular, oppose how the bill would affect rice and peanut growers.
On the fiscal year 2013 budget front, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved on Thursday, June 14 its spending measure for the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services (HHS), and Education. While the legislation would cut funding for the Department of Labor by roughly $200 million, it would increase funding for the Departments of HHS and Education by $1.38 billion and $400 million, respectively.
To date, the Senate Appropriations Committee has approved eight of the 12 annual spending bills, though none of the measures has advanced to the floor of the Senate. In the House, the Appropriations Committee has cleared seven fiscal year 2013 funding bills, with five measures approved by the full House.
State Criminal Alien Assistance Program
The Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Bureau of Justice Assistance
(BJA) recently announced a policy change that will have a
significant, detrimental impact on California counties’ State
Criminal Alien Assistance Program (SCAAP) awards. As part of the
fiscal year 2012 SCAAP application cycle, BJA announced that the
Agency will no longer provide jurisdictions with reimbursement
for inmates whose immigration status is “unknown.”
Since 1996, BJA has provided variable SCAAP reimbursement amounts to states and counties for inmates whose immigration statuses are both “known” and “unknown” to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). An “unknown” inmate is an individual who has had no prior contact with the federal immigration system and whose identity therefore cannot be confirmed by DHS.
According to BJA, the practice of providing partial reimbursement credit for unknown inmates was a recognition that some of these individuals could have been undocumented if they had entered the United States illegally and never came into contact with federal immigration authorities. Because there would have been no contact with the federal government, DHS would not be able to confirm the inmate’s status (that is, as undocumented) for eligibility of a SCAAP payment.
Ironically, for the 2011 SCAAP payment cycle, BJA actually increased the SCAAP reimbursement percentage to counties for the cost of unknown inmate days. Last year’s decision to increase these payments was based on a DHS review of recent unknown inmate data which showed that of the records that were updated, reviewed, and came back with a known inmate status, 86 percent were attributable to inmates in county facilities. BJA’s 2011 decision was clear acknowledgement that an extremely high percentage of “unknown” inmates are, in fact, undocumented immigrants.
While BJA’s rationale for its new policy is to “make better use of limited SCAAP funding and to ensure jurisdictions are reimbursed only for known undocumented criminal aliens,” the effect of the policy is to shift dollars from counties to states since counties generally have a higher percentage of “unknown” inmates in their correctional facilities. Accordingly, under the new policy, counties would see a dramatic drop in their SCAAP payments, while states would see large gains. By way of illustration, if BJA’s new reimbursement policy had been in effect for the 2010 Solicitation Year, California counties’ SCAAP allocations would have been cut by over $18.8 million – from $40.8 million to $21.9 million, a decrease of over 46 percent.
There are several efforts underway to compel the Department of Justice to reverse its decision. For starters, counties, county government associations, and sheriff’s departments have written to DOJ and BJA to register their strong opposition to the policy change. CSAC has been and remains a leader in opposing this ill-advised change.
In Congress, a number of lawmakers have written to Attorney General Eric Holder to express their concern and opposition to the new policy. Recently, Congressman Mike Honda (D-CA) joined forces with Congressman John Carter (R-TX) to spearhead a Dear Colleague letter to the attorney general urging the Department of Justice to reconsider its decision. Senator Boxer also has sent a letter to the attorney general on this important matter.
This week, 42 bipartisan members of the House wrote to House and
Senate transportation committee leaders in support of dedicated
federal funding for off-system bridges. The letter, spearheaded
by Representatives Mike Thompson (D-CA), Lois Capps (D-CA), and
Glenn Thompson (R-PA), urges committee leaders to retain in the
final transportation reauthorization bill a provision from the
Senate highway measure (S 1813) that would require minimum
funding levels for bridges not on Federal-aid Highways. The House
version of the legislation (HR 4348) is silent on the issue.
It should be noted that CSAC worked closely with Representatives Mike Thompson and Capps, as well as the National Association of Counties (NACo), to develop and promote the bipartisan correspondence. Of the members signing onto the letter, nearly half are from the State of California.
The federal Highway Bridge Program has required states to spend at least 15 percent of their annual apportioned bridge funding on bridges located on public roads other than those on a Federal-aid highway. The requirement, which has been in place since 1978, has allowed local governments to improve and replace local off-system bridges.
In California, local bridges comprise an integral part of the local streets and roads infrastructure. Currently, California has 4,428 bridges on the Eligible Bridge List (bridges that are classified as structurally deficient or functionally obsolete and fail to meet the requisite Sufficiency Rating); 2,776 of these bridges are locally owned and operated. The California Statewide Local Streets and Roads Needs Assessment found that, based solely upon projects identified by local agencies and approved by Caltrans for future federal funding, the local streets and roads bridge needs total $2.6 billion.
Prospects for a new transportation reauthorization bill remain uncertain. With the most recent extension of current law set to lapse at the end of June, lawmakers are under increasing pressure to approve a long-term reauthorization package.
For his part, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) has told negotiators that if they do not finish their work before the current authorization lapses, he would support a six-month extension of current law. Such a move would defer action on a new transportation measure until after the November elections.
Incidentally, there are still a number of issues that will need to be ironed out before a final measure is sent to the president, including the question of how to pay for a new bill. Lawmakers are trying to develop a package of revenue offsets that would fill the gap between Highway Trust Fund tax receipts and authorized spending levels. Additionally, negotiators sill have not settled on how to address the Keystone XL oil pipeline, which is included in the House version of the reauthorization legislation. The White House has threatened to veto the bill if the pipeline provision is included.