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Massive Federal Spending Bill Offers Big Boost for State, Local Programs

The U.S. Capitol during a snow storm on Wednesday, March 21, 2018.

The U.S. Capitol during a snow storm on Wednesday, March 21, 2018. Route Fifty / Bill Lucia

 

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The legislation would beef-up Community Development Block Grant funding and TIGER grants would triple compared to FY 17. There are other notable increases as well.

WASHINGTON — A roughly $1.3 trillion spending bill congressional lawmakers unveiled Wednesday night would pump hundreds of millions of dollars in added funding to federal programs that state and local governments commonly turn to for grants and other support.

The 2,232-page measure covers the rest of the 2018 fiscal year, which runs through Sept. 30. Congress is up against a deadline on Friday at midnight to pass a version of the bill, or a short-term funding patch, to avoid a partial government shutdown for a third time in three months.

"We must reform our broken budget process to return to a regular appropriations process. But this legislation addresses important priorities and makes us stronger at home and abroad," House Speaker Paul Ryan said in a statement.

"No bill of this size is perfect," he added.

Spending on the Community Development Block Grant program, a key source of flexible federal funding for many local governments, would rise to $3.3 billion, from its 2017 funding level of $3 billion. The grants are used for a wide variety of purposes, ranging from street upgrades, to programs assisting seniors.

The new spending bill would also allot $1.5 billion for Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER grants, tripling the fiscal 2017 level of $500 million. A highly competitive program that dates back to 2009, TIGER has helped fund projects involving roads, transit, ports and short-line railroads.

A Department of Housing and Urban Development grant initiative known as HOME Investment Partnerships, which aids state and local affordable housing efforts, would see funding increase to $1.362 billion under the spending package, from $950 million in 2017.

The legislation also includes about $2.6 billion for Capital Investment Grants, which help pay for transit projects. This is higher than the $2.4 billion for the grants in fiscal 2017. Capital Investment Grants include the "New Starts" program, which has funneled money to projects like Los Angeles’ Westside Purple Line subway extension and the TEX rail commuter rail project in the Fort Worth, Texas area.

Overall, funding for transportation, housing and urban development programs in the "omnibus" bill is about $70 billion, according to a summary of the legislation issued by House Appropriations Committee Democrats. That's a nearly 22 percent increase over the $57 billion for these programs in fiscal 2017.

The omnibus marks the latest rejection by Congress of cuts to state and local programs that President Trump has called for in his budget proposals. For instance, both budget requests the White House has sent to Congress called for eliminating Community Development Block Grants, TIGER Grants and the HOME Investment Partnerships program.

Looking beyond transportation, housing and urban development, the bill would allocate $600 million under the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Utilities Service for a new broadband loan and grant pilot program. Elsewhere in the legislation there's $380 million for the Election Assistance Commission to make payments to states for voting system upgrades, including security improvements.

According to the summary of the legislation from the House Appropriations Democrats, it also includes a $3.2 billion increase for programs to respond to the problems with opioid addiction plaguing communities around the U.S. That total includes funding for prevention, treatment, law enforcement and other purposes.

Funding for the Justice Department's Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS, programs would be raised to $275 million, up about $54 million from 2017. COPS is meant to assist state and local law enforcement with policing efforts geared toward building trust between police and the communities where they work.

Payments in Lieu of Taxes would be fully funded at $530 million, according to an Appropriations Committee summary. "PILT" payments go to places with tax-exempt tracts of federal land. The program is a priority for many counties in the western U.S.

One of the major sticking points with the spending measure has been the so-called Gateway project, in the New York City area. 

Gateway is actually a cluster of projects with an estimated cost of about $30 billion. A major element would involve a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River, between Manhattan and New Jersey. Tunnels Amtrak and New Jersey Transit trains now use in the busy corridor are over a century old and were damaged during a 2012 storm. 

Trump is said to have chafed in recent weeks at the prospect of letting funds flow to the mega-project. But powerful lawmakers in both parties, especially those from New Jersey and New York, have thrown their weight behind it.

The omnibus does not feature the same language embedded in a House appropriations bill from last year that effectively carved out $900 million that would have been available, though not guaranteed, for the project. But it does include grant funding that Gateway could possibly qualify for, including $650 million for Amtrak Northeast Corridor grants.

The omnibus legislation includes about $1.5 billion for barriers and other technology along the nation's southern border with Mexico, including more than 90 miles of “border wall system,” according to a Republican summary of the bill. Building a wall along the border is one of Trump's signature proposals.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said Wednesday “Democrats won explicit language restricting border construction to the same see-through fencing that was already authorized under current law."

The barrier's details aside, Trump touted the border security funding and increases in military spending in a tweet on Wednesday night.

"Got $1.6 Billion to start Wall on Southern Border, rest will be forthcoming. Most importantly, got $700 Billion to rebuild our Military, $716 Billion next year...most ever. Had to waste money on Dem giveaways in order to take care of military pay increase and new equipment," the president wrote on Twitter.

Ryan, too, highlighted the ramped up military spending, describing it as the "biggest increase in defense funding in 15 years."

Fiscal 2018 began last Oct. 1. Lawmakers have passed a series of stopgap measures to keep the government funded since then.

"Six months and we still have not gotten this matter resolved of funding our government," Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, of Maryland, told reporters Wednesday. "It's a stark display of the dysfunction of the Republican leadership of the House and the Senate and their refusal to make compromises when they need our votes."

Congressional leaders struck a two-year budget deal last month that provided a framework for the omnibus. That broader agreement rolled back spending caps and paved the way for about $300 billion in added spending over fiscal years 2018 and 2019.

Estimates the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget released in February show that if the broader two-year budget deal is adhered to, annual federal deficits would hit about $800 billion this fiscal year and nearly $1.2 trillion in the next budget cycle. Deficits in fiscal 2017 were around $666 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Overall federal spending for fiscal 2017 was around $4 trillion, but about $2.5 trillion of that sum went to "mandatory" programs, like Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security. That's opposed to "discretionary" programs, like CDBG and TIGER.

The Trump administration has been advocating for an infrastructure plan it debuted last month that calls for about $200 billion of federal spending over a decade and a trio of new federal grant programs.

“This is a very serious, very hefty, downpayment on what the president has been talking about on infrastructure," Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Florida Republican who chairs an Appropriations subcommittee that oversees transportation, housing and urban development programs told reporters on Tuesday, referring to the omnibus.

Diaz-Balart acknowledged funding in the bill would not go toward the types of new grant programs the White House has proposed. But he added: "If the concern or the issue is, you know, making sure that states have adequate funding to deal with their projects, or their transportation projects, people are going to be thrilled."

This story has been updated.

Bill Lucia is a Senior Reporter for Government Executive's Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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