Week Ending September 16, 2016
Senate Overwhelmingly Passes Water Projects Bill Including Aid to Flint
On Thursday the U.S. Senate voted 95-3 to pass S. 2848, a reauthorization of the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), which provides $10.6 billion for water infrastructure projects across the country. The legislation also includes a long-awaited $220 million loan package for Flint, MI to help the community address its ongoing water crisis, which has been championed by Michigan Democrats, Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters, and Rep. Dan Kildee. The Senate legislation also includes $300 million for communities to replace lead service lines, and $1.4 billion over five years for grants under the Safe Water Drinking Act.
Earlier in the spring AFSCME, along with the UAW, SEIU, AFT and NEA, hosted a lobby and action day by bringing Flint families to DC to urge Congress address the water emergency. More than a year ago Flint residents found toxic levels of lead in their water, resulting in a decision from the area’s emergency manager to switch the water source to the Flint river to save money. This week, the former director of disease control and prevention at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services pleaded no contest to the charge of willful neglect of duty.
Attention in Congress now shifts to the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which has jurisdiction over WRDA, and the House companion legislation (H.R. 5303). The House bill, however, does not include the Flint package. With only a handful of legislative days remaining before Congress recesses for campaigns, congressional Democrats are pushing for adoption of the Flint package on any route forward, including adding it to a must-pass budget bill. If no final action is taken the issue could be addressed in a post-election “lame duck” session.
Congressional Leaders Continue to Haggle Over Details on Funding Bill
House and Senate leaders continue to negotiate the details of a stop-gap funding measure, known as a continuing resolution (CR), to prevent a government shutdown when the federal fiscal year ends September 30. The details are still being worked out, including emergency spending to address the Zika virus and other issues. This week the White House submitted an emergency request to Congress for $2.6 billion in federal disaster assistance to help Louisiana’s response to major flooding, which also could be added.
The Senate has scheduled a procedural vote on the CR early next week. A final vote is expected by the end of next week before beginning its election recess. No votes have been scheduled on the CR in the House yet, and they are not expected to vote until after the Senate passes it.
The Senate, so far, has also failed to advance any legislation to provide for emergency spending to address the Zika virus. The lead federal agency responsible for addressing this mosquito-borne virus is running out of funds that have already been shifted from other public health issues to this emergency.
New Bill Would Streamline Income-Driven Payments for Student Loans
Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) joined Rep. Ryan Costello (R-PA) to introduce The SIMPLE ACT (H.R. 5962) to Streamline Income-driven, Manageable Payments on Loans for Education, allowing for income-based repayment (IBR) plans. The bill would make it possible for borrowers to pay only what they can afford, and make it easier to enroll in the program. This measure would allow the use of information borrowers already on file at the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to eliminate the obstacles to enrolling in IBR. The bill will allow the automatic enrollment of new student loan borrowers who are severely delinquent into IBR, so that they can get lower monthly payments. And it will automate the annual process to recertify borrowers’ income, so that they can continue to pay based on income. AFSCME supports this bill and other efforts to help borrowers with student loans.
Two Reports Issued on the Impact of Affordable Care Act (ACA)
Two reports highlighting the impact of the ACA on the number of uninsured and on the financial health of rural hospitals were released this week. The first report from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that between 2013 and 2015, the number of individuals who gained health care coverage grew by 12.8 million or by 4%. The percentage of Americans who still lacked health insurance in 2015 was 9%.
In a study published by the journal Health Affairs, researchers looked at the impact of the ACA’s Medicaid expansion on hospital revenues. As expected, the level of uncompensated care fell in states that had expanded their Medicaid programs, improving revenues for hospitals in those states. In particular, the researchers found that the failure of some states to expand Medicaid has been especially harmful for rural hospitals because they tend to face more financial strains than urban hospitals.
Better Services for SNAP E&T Programs
In the 2014 Farm Bill, $200 million was set aside for 10 pilot projects under Title IV – the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) – also known as food stamps, and a variety of smaller nutrition programs to help low-income Americans afford food for their families. The pilot projects were designed for the development, implementation, and evaluation of programs intended to reduce dependency and increase work effort for SNAP recipients. Ten states across the U.S. were awarded pilot grants to build on existing SNAP Employment and Training (E&T) programs, and test new strategies to determine the most effective ways to help SNAP recipients gain and retain employment that leads to self-sufficiency. The states receiving awards included a mix of urban and rural areas.
This week, members of the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Nutrition held an oversight hearing regarding the Past, Present, and Future of SNAP: Improving Innovation and Success in E&T Programs. The hearing focused on the factors influencing each state’s pilot program designs, and how such programs should be reflected upon with a broader lens in how we engage high risk populations, as witnesses from Washington, California, and Georgia testified on the impact of E&T programs and services on the ability of participants to obtain and keep long-term employment.
Labor: Citizenship and the Workforce
The Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute hosted its annual legislative conference. Thousands gathered from around the country and across the globe in Washington, D.C. to focus on how American Latinos are engaging in the political process and represented at all levels of government and the workplace. As part of the conference, Rep. Juan Vargas (D-CA) facilitated an important discussion on how labor unions help to strengthen the nation with a specific emphasis on the working families of our Latino brothers and sisters. Finding a place for today’s immigrant workers in the labor movement and the intersection of Comprehensive Immigration Reform – which will hopefully be addressed in the 115th Congress set to begin next year – guided the discussion. That dialog provided fuel to why a path to citizenship matters.
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