Update From Washington, D.C.
Voting Rights Bill Fails to Advance in Senate; Biden Administration Announces Bridge Formula Program Allocations; Forest Service Unveils New Strategy to Address Wildfire Threat
Voting Rights Bill Fails to Advance in Senate
This week, Senate Democrats were unable to advance a sweeping voting rights package (H.R. 5746) designed to overhaul elections and expand ballot access. Despite the support of the full Democratic caucus, the measure – which would also restore the Justice Department’s ability to require states with a history of racial discrimination to gain approval from the Department before changing their election policies – did not meet the 60-vote threshold required to overcome a filibuster. For their part, Democrats contend that H.R. 5746 would help counter more restrictive voting rights laws recently enacted by GOP-led state legislatures. On the other hand, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and others have stated that the legislation is designed to disadvantage Republican candidates in future elections.
Once it was clear the legislation would not move forward, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) offered a narrow resolution that would have exempted the voting reform bill from traditional filibuster rules, thus allowing the Senate to hold a simple majority vote for final passage. However, and as expected, the effort was unsuccessful as Senators Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) joined all 50 Republicans in opposing the rules change.
Biden Administration Announces Bridge Formula Program Allocations
The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) recently announced $27 billion in funding to replace, repair, and rehabilitate bridges across the country under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act’s (IIJA) new Bridge Formula Program. Of the $5.3 billion available in fiscal year 2022, California is receiving nearly $850 million, including over $127 million that is specifically set-aside for local bridges that are located off of the Federal-aid highway system. In total, the state is expected to receive as much as $4.2 billion from the new program through fiscal year 2026.
It should be noted that the federal infrastructure law also established a separate $12.5 billion competitive grant program to assist in rehabilitating or replacing deficient bridges. Counties will be able to apply directly to the U.S. Department of Transportation later this year for these grants.
Forest Service Unveils New Strategy to Address Wildfire Threat
On January 18, the Forest Service unveiled a new comprehensive strategy – Confronting the Wildfire Crisis: A Strategy for Protecting Communities and Improving Resilience in America’s Forests – to address the growing wildfire threat. Among the key takeaways from the document is a significant need to increase fuels and forest health treatments, including the use of prescribed fire and thinning to reduce hazardous fuels. The new strategy would involve targeting these efforts in high-risk firesheds, including the Pacific Northwest, the Sierra Nevada Range in California, the front range in Colorado, and the Southwest.
Specifically, the new wildfire mitigation plan – which builds on the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy – calls for the U.S. Forest Service to treat an additional 20 million acres of National Forest System lands and up to an additional 30 million acres of other Federal, State, Tribal, and privately owned lands over the next ten years – or approximately three times the amount of acres that were expected to be treated over that same period. The plan also details how the Forest Service will expand its workforce and increase the pace of post-fire recovery and reforestation programs. It should be noted that this report includes plans to utilize $3.3 billion for wildfire mitigation efforts that were included in the IIJA.