Congress Approves Short-term Budget; CA Lawmakers Introduce Wildfire Resiliency Legislation
November 21, 2019
With the current stopgap spending bill set to expire at midnight on November 21, Congress approved this week and President Trump is expected to sign into law a new Continuing Resolution (CR) that will extend funding for federal programs through December 20. The latest CR will give lawmakers just under one month to arrive at a long-term budget deal for the fiscal year that began on October 1.
In addition to providing level funding for most federal agency budgets, the bill contains several anomalies, including an automatic 3.1 percent increase in military pay and a boost in funding for the Census Bureau. The CR also includes a provision that will prevent a $7.6 billion cut to federal highway funding in fiscal year 2020. Finally, the stopgap spending measure extends authorizations through December 20 for the National Flood Insurance Program, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, and the Export-Import Bank, among others.
Looking ahead, House and Senate lawmakers must negotiate topline spending figures for each of the 12 annual appropriations bill before a final fiscal year 2020 budget package can advance. In doing so, House and Senate leaders will be trying to avoid the pitfalls that led to the government shutdown earlier this year.
California Lawmakers Introduce Wildfire Resiliency Legislation
Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Congressman Jared Huffman (D-CA) recently introduced legislation – the Wildfire Defense Act (HR 5091; S 2882) – that would authorize $1 billion annually to help communities become more resilient to wildfires. Specifically, the bill would provide grants of up to $250,000 to eligible entities, which includes counties, to help develop Community Wildfire Defense Plans (CWDP) and up to $10 million to help implement those plans. The funding could be used for activities such as improving evacuation routes, addressing vulnerable populations, and hardening/increasing the resiliency of critical infrastructure. Pursuant to HR 5091/S 2882, the CWDP grants would be prioritized for low-income communities that are in a wildfire hazard area and areas that have recently been hit by a major wildfire.
In the Senate, the bill has been referred to the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, while the House companion falls under the jurisdiction of both the Natural Resources and the Transportation and Infrastructure Committees. It should be noted that Senator Harris and Congressman Huffman serve on each of these panels.
House Committee Advances Cannabis Decriminalization Bill
On November 20, the House Judiciary Committee approved legislation (HR 3884) that would decriminalize cannabis at the federal level. Entitled the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, the bill also would provide for restorative justice by allowing courts to reassess prior marijuana-related convictions. Additionally, HR 3884 would authorize a five percent federal tax on cannabis sales, the proceeds of which would be designated for programs (i.e., job training, reentry services, mentoring programs) in communities that have been most impacted by the drug war.
It should be noted that Congressman Matt Gaetz (R-FL), a primary sponsor of the measure, was joined by Representative Tom McClintock (R-CA) as the only Republicans to vote in favor of the MORE Act. Their GOP colleagues expressed concern that the committee was moving too fast on the matter and recommended that the panel hold more hearings on the health and societal impacts of legalization. At the same time, other Republican representatives expressed support for a more narrowly drafted proposal – such as the STATES Act (HR 2093) – which would allow states to determine their own cannabis policies. In their view, such a proposal would be more palatable to the GOP-led Senate. Despite the Republican concerns, Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-NY) expressed optimism that the full chamber will consider the bill before the end of the current Congress.
Additional information on the bill, as well as a video of the markup, can be accessed here.
Senate Panel Discusses Legislative Options for SRS and PILT
On November 21, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a legislative hearing to receive testimony on three bills pertaining to the Secure Rural Schools (SRS) and Payment-in-Lieu-of-Taxes (PILT) programs. One proposal (S 430) under consideration would simply extend the SRS program for an additional two years, while a related measure (S 1643) would create an endowment fund to provide stable, long-term SRS payments to forested counties. The third bill (S 2108) seeks to alter the way PILT is calculated for some of the nation’s smallest counties.
Four witnesses were invited to appear before the panel, including Wrangell City and Borough (Alaska) Mayor Stephen Prysunka, who testified on behalf of the National Association of Counties (NACo). Mayor Prysunka expressed support for all three of the aforementioned bills, as well as two other long-term PILT renewal proposals that were not included on the agenda.
Interior Department Budget Director Denise Flanagan provided the administration’s perspective on S 2108, while U.S. Forest Service Associate Deputy Chief Allen Rowley addressed the two SRS measures. Both witnesses acknowledged the important contribution that programs like PILT and SRS have made to the fiscal condition of local governments. While committed to fulfilling its role of managing both programs, the administration has concerns related to the cost of proposed extensions and expansions. Additional information on the hearing can be accessed here.
HHS Proposes Medicaid Financing Rule
This week, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued a proposed rule that would affect the way in which states and counties are able to finance their Medicaid programs. Among the many provisions within the proposal, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) would further restrict the use of intergovernmental transfers (IGTs), certified public expenditures and health provider taxes, as well as increase scrutiny of disproportionate share payments received by public hospitals. CSAC will be working with county affiliates and NACo to prepare comments, which are due on January 17, 2020.