Week Ending May 9, 2014
Funding Bills Moving Forward
This week the House Appropriations Committee approved spending levels for its 12 spending bills for the upcoming Fiscal Year (FY) 2015. AFSCME is very concerned that spending levels for labor, health, education, housing, transportation, and public safety are too low to adequately support public needs. The Labor, Health, Human Services and Education (Labor HHS) bill, for example, is funded at $1 billion below last year’s level. Further, new costly program demands will require approximately $1.5 billion, forcing cuts in many long-established, essential programs.
Unlike last year, the spending bills are proceeding quickly through the House. Last year’s bi-partisan budget agreement set the overall funding level for FY 2015 at $1.014 trillion, and cooler heads seem to agree it would be best to avoid another bruising government shutdown, particularly in an election year. So far, the full House has voted to approve spending for the Legislative Branch, Military Construction and the Veterans’ Administration (Mil-Con-VA).
On Thursday, the House Appropriations Committee advanced an FY 2015 budget bill that would cut $72.6 million from state and local law enforcement and crime prevention grants from the previous year. Consistent with recent years, a large share of the proposed cuts comes from the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) hiring grants, which was trimmed by $180 million to $96.5 million. The proposed cut is also $150.5 million below the administration’s request of $247 million. The COPS hiring grants provide crucial funding to state and local law enforcement agencies to hire and retain officers and is one of AFSCME’s public safety priorities.
The committee was kinder to other law enforcement legislative priorities. Byrne Justice Assistance Grants (JAG) again received $376 million, including $22.5 million for bulletproof vests. Both funding levels are consistent with the administration’s request.
A House Appropriations subcommittee approved by a voice vote the annual funding legislation for transportation and housing programs, providing about $8 billion less than President Obama’s overall budget request. The bill specifically includes $4.4 billion for the Public Housing Operating Fund, much less than Public Housing Authorities need to operate public housing, and only $1.8 billion for the Public Housing Capital Fund. Both funding levels are slightly below the President’s request. AFSCME supports billions of additional spending for the Capital Fund and significantly higher funding for the Operating Fund to ensure Public Housing Authorities receive 100% of their expected operating costs. The bill also funds the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) at $3 billion, roughly similar to the current level. The bill is expected to move to the full House Appropriations Committee later this month.
Next week the House will be out of session, but the Senate is expected to approve its 12 subcommittee funding levels. Nondefense bills, including those that fund key public services, are expected to fare better than in the House. The Labor-HHS bill is likely to be one of the last, as usual, to be addressed.
House and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairs Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY) and Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) are both focused on finalizing as many funding bills as possible prior to the end of the fiscal year on September 30 and before the November elections. It is highly unlikely, however, that all bills will be completed, and a short-term spending bill will probably be needed.
House GOP Leaders Turn a Deaf Ear to Unemployed Workers
House Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Steny Hoyer (D-MD) led a press event this week to put pressure on Republican leaders to take up legislation extending federal unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed. Seven long-term unemployed workers, each with highly emotional stories, spoke at the event which took place on the Capitol steps. They included an Air Force veteran with a physics degree, a former corporate environmental health and safety officer, a former salesperson and a former director of accounting and human resources for a manufacturing plant. All are in danger of losing their homes and of becoming disconnected from the working world as they lose the ability to maintain phone and internet service which they need to search for work.
Bipartisan legislation to extend unemployment benefits passed the Senate on April 1, but House GOP leaders failed to take it up before they recessed for two weeks. When they returned, the committee responsible for unemployment insurance programs moved to approve a set of tax cuts for corporations instead of acting the on unemployment insurance benefit crises.
Bill Would Allow Student Loans to be Refinanced, Making College More Affordable
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Rep. John Tierney (D-MA) introduced bills (S. 1066 and H.R. 4582) that would save student loan borrowers thousands of dollars. The legislation would allow borrowers to refinance federal and private student loans that were issued before 2013, at significantly lower current rates. Homeowners and businesses can refinance debts but student loan holders cannot, which these bills seek to change. The Senate bill is expected to be folded into a broader college affordability package that the Senate is planning to vote on in June.
Senators Levin and Wyden Plan Restrictions on American Corporations’ Offshore Deals
Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) announced he is drafting legislation to restrict the ability of American corporations to move offshore to reduce their taxes. This is in response to potential deals similar to a recent announcement by the New York-based pharmaceutical company Pfizer Inc. that it would attempt to acquire a company in the U.K. and change its legal address in order to get the U.K.’s lower tax rate. Senate Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden (D-OR) stated, this action on “corporate inversions” is key to stop “hollowing out” America’s tax base. Many American corporations have already reduced their taxes by changing their legal address to low-tax nations like Bermuda or Ireland. Congressional Democrats have previously supported various plans to tax corporations to reduce this tax avoidance strategy, including some proposals that would impose taxes at domestic rates if firms are controlled and managed in America, no matter where their “headquarters” are.
Senate Committee Agrees to Highway and Transit Reauthorization
Top lawmakers on the Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee have agreed to a multi-year highway and transit reauthorization plan. The bill would fund surface transportation programs at current levels plus inflation. However, the bill does not address the most contentious transportation issue – how Congress will come up with the billions of dollars needed to fund the Highway Trust Fund. Without congressional action, the Fund could run out of money as soon as August, a full month before current policy expires. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx has stated that payments to states for construction projects may have to be delayed in order to maintain a positive balance in the Highway Trust Fund.
Affordable Care Act Driving Patient Safety and Saving Lives
New preliminary data from the Department of Health and Human Services show quality improvements from the Affordable Care Act (ACA) are driving life-saving changes in how hospitals deliver care. Patient safety measures prevented nearly 15,000 deaths in hospitals, avoided 560,000 patient injuries, and reduced health spending during 2011 and 2012 by approximately $4 billion. The ACA changed the Medicare payment system to encourage hospitals to reduce hospital acquired conditions and preventable errors such as adverse drug events, falls, infections, and other forms of harm. Thanks to the ACA, hospitals increased patient safety and reduced these preventable problems by 9%.
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