Week Ending April 26, 2013
Senate Committee to Begin Debate on Immigration Reform Bill
On Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee was to hold its first session to begin amending the comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) bill (S. 744), introduced last week. However, Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) announced that the mark-up process would instead be “held over” until May 9.
Earlier in the week, the committee held an all-day hearing on the bill. While the implications of the Boston bombings on CIR were raised, none of the committee members argued that the need for reform is diminished. However, there were partisan differences about what the final bill should look like. Ranking Member Charles Grassley (R-IA) said that increased border security should be the starting point and argued that the path to citizenship should be delayed. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) stressed the importance of DREAMers – those undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children – having an expedited path to citizenship. He also argued that before jobs are made available to foreign workers, they must be advertised and made available to U.S. workers at a fair wage and said no U.S. worker should lose his or her job to a temporary visa worker. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) supported the position that U.S. workers should have the first shot at jobs and that these jobs must pay the actual or prevailing wage. Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) pledged he would work to amend the bill so that LGBT families have the same access to family visas as do other families. The next committee session on CIR will be held either May 7 or May 9, after next week’s congressional recess.
All across the country, AFSCME activists will be joining with other labor partners and community organizations to turn out for rallies on May Day, Wednesday, May 1, to demand that Congress pass comprehensive immigration reform. To find a rally near you, please go to: http://local.americawantstowork.org/mayday
Senate Votes to Advance Marketplace Fairness Act and Help States and Localities Collect Sales Tax
A large bipartisan majority of senators voted this week to advance the Marketplace Fairness Act of 2013 (S. 743), which would grant states the authority to require remote sellers (out of state internet and mail order) to collect sales tax. Experts estimate uncollected use tax from all remote sales in 2012 cost states and localities a cumulative $11 billion-$23 billion per year. In addition to AFSCME and other unions, this bill is supported by state and local governments, governors, mayors and elected officials, and a broad coalition of big and small businesses. This week, the White House also issued a statement supporting the bill. Unfortunately, a small group of senators adamantly oppose the bill. While opponents highlighted several problems with the bill, they also objected to bipartisan amendments designed to improve it. After several days of debate, opponents succeeded in delaying the vote on final passage until after next week’s recess. Nonetheless, on Thursday, Senate supporters successfully voted 63 to 30 to end debate and the Senate is expected to vote on a final passage after Senate recess on Monday, May 6.
Snarls in Air Traffic Highlight the Harm of the Sequester
Federal budget cuts, known as the sequester cuts, are harming a wide range of public services provided by federal, state and local governments and are expected to cause a loss of 750,000 jobs. The cuts that have received the most attention are the furloughs of air traffic controllers which have caused delays in flights around the country this week. On Friday, the House cleared legislation that would revoke furloughs for air traffic controllers, but shift the spending cuts to other programs in the Transportation Department. The Senate approved the bill the day before, and the President is expected to sign the measure into law. AFSCME strongly opposes the sequester and has been working to restore funding for public services.
Employment Non-Discrimination Act Reintroduced in the Congress
The Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) was once again introduced in the Congress by Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Mark Kirk (R-IL), and Reps. Jared Polis (D-CO) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL). ENDA would prohibit most public and private employers from discriminating against workers based on their sexual orientation and gender identity. The bill would grant these citizens the same workplace rights and safeguards enjoyed by others who are protected on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin and disability. ENDA has been introduced in every Congress since 1994 but has not received a vote in the Senate since 1996.
AFSCME played a role in crafting the 1994 bill that was introduced in the House by former Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA). President Obama has said that he would sign the bill into law should ENDA make its way to his desk.
Harmful State Pension Bills Reintroduced
The misleadingly named Public Employee Pension Transparency Act (PEPTA) (H.R. 1628/S.779) has been introduced once again in the House by Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) and in the Senate by Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC). The legislation, which was originally introduced in the last Congress but not acted upon, would require state and local governments to file annual reports with the U.S. Treasury Department disclosing unfunded pension liabilities. But in doing so, it would require the use of unrealistic rates of return pegged to an artificially low Treasury return rate. This would, by design, grossly exaggerate pension plan liabilities and increase politically-motivated calls to further weaken public pension plans. The legislation is not about transparency since plans already comply with existing state and local accounting and reporting requirements which mandate detailed information about plan liabilities, asset values, assumptions, rates of return, annual required contributions and other information. Additionally, the reports would be costly and administratively burdensome. State and local governments that fail to comply could lose their ability to issue tax exempt bonds.
Budget Uncertainty Continues
There is uncertainty regarding the ongoing budget battles to address sequestration and to agree on overall limits for FY 2014 spending.
AFSCME continues to educate Congress about the harsh effects of sequestration, as these cuts will impose more job losses on top of already high unemployment and strip much-needed funds from state and local governments struggling to provide critical public services spanning health, education, transportation and more. This week Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) introduced S. 788 to repeal the sequester for the remainder of this fiscal year, through September 30. However, this bill has not gained traction across party lines.
Also this week, House Republicans blocked efforts to resolve differences between the House and Senate budgets. The absence of a budget agreement to guide both chambers sets up a budget fight for the fall. The Senate is pushing for an overall spending limit of $1.058 billion (excluding mandatory programs such as Social Security), while the House budget would set $966 billion as the limit. In addition, the House budget shifts more of the spending cuts from defense to the non-defense side of the ledger, a double whammy for health, education, public safety, transportation and other programs. It seems likely that the budget will not be resolved by the end of the fiscal year and, once again, at least one or more stop-gap measures will be needed.
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