Connecting state and local government leaders

House Panel Advances Spending Bill for HUD and DOT Programs

The U.S. Capitol dome.

The U.S. Capitol dome. shutterstock

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

Community Development Block Grants and "BUILD" infrastructure grants are among the programs the appropriations legislation proposes spending levels for.

WASHINGTON — Heftier federal spending on transportation and housing programs that funnel money to state and local governments would continue for a second consecutive year, under appropriations legislation a House subcommittee approved Wednesday.

The fiscal 2019 bill, which covers the Department of Transportation and Department of Housing and Urban Development, contains $71.8 billion in discretionary spending, up $1.5 billion from current levels. It comes in the wake of an omnibus spending package for the current 2018 fiscal year that cranked up funding for a wide range of programs.

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Florida Republican, chairs the Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the "T-HUD" bill.

"This is, right now, the only game in town when you're talking about infrastructure investment," he told reporters after a markup hearing for the bill on Wednesday evening.

"This is a major, major infrastructure bill," he added.

An infrastructure proposal the White House released in February has failed to make much headway on Capitol Hill. It calls for about $200 billion of spending over a decade, mostly for new grant programs.

The House appropriations bill has bipartisan support. 

Rep. David Price, of North Carolina, who is the ranking member on the subcommittee, said Diaz-Balart "bent over backwards" to accommodate requests from Democrats.

Overall HUD discretionary spending in the bill checks in at around $43.6 billion, $941 million above fiscal 2018, according to an Appropriations Committee summary.

Proposed funding for Community Development Block Grants is $3.3 billion, equal to the current level. Local governments use the grants to cover costs ranging from sewer upgrades to substance abuse recovery programs. In 2017, CDBG funding was about $3 billion.

HOME Investment Partnerships, a grant program that supports affordable housing efforts, would see funding slip by $162 million from fiscal 2018 to $1.2 billion. But this level is still higher than the program's $950 million of funding in 2017.

Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers and Public and Indian Housing programs would see funding increased to $30.8 billion, $455 million above the current fiscal year. And Homeless Assistance Grants would get a funding bump of $33 million, to $2.5 billion.

On the transportation side of the bill, DOT is afforded $27.8 billion in discretionary appropriations. That's up $542 million over this year. 

"BUILD" grants, formerly known as Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER, would receive $750 million. That's down from a $1.5 billion spike in for the current fiscal year, but still higher than the $500 million allotted for the program in 2017.

The bill has language to "balance" the distribution of the BUILD grants to rural, urban and suburban areas, the summary says. And it stipulates $250 million of the grants are to be set aside for ports.

Asked about who pushed for the carveout for port projects, Diaz-Balart declined to get into the specifics, but said it's something he's "very supportive of." (Florida has 15 public seaports, according to the Florida Ports Council, including the Port of Miami, one of the nation's busiest.)

Capital Investment Grants, a transit funding account that includes the New Starts and Small Starts programs, would be allotted $2.6 billion, the same as fiscal 2018. The grants can be used for major projects involving light rail, commuter rail and bus rapid transit.

The bill would also allow $46 billion from the Highway Trust Fund to be spent on "federal-aid" highways, up $1 billion over this year and in line with authorized levels. With that money, and an extra $4.2 billion in discretionary spending, the bill summary says road and bridge funding would rise by about $2.7 billion compared to fiscal 2018.

Diaz-Balart said during the markup that this plussed-up highway funding is the largest increase proposed in the bill.

Federal Transit Administration funding, according to the summary, totals $13.6 billion, an increase of $141 million over the current level.

The bill does not include language tailored to provide money for the "Gateway" mega-project in the New York City area.

Gateway, actually a cluster of projects, involves building a new tunnel for passenger trains under the Hudson River between Manhattan and New Jersey. It has an estimated price tag of about $30 billion.

Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, the New Jersey Republican who chairs the Appropriations Committee, has been among the leading Gateway advocates in Congress. ("My enthusiasm for Gateway has increased with every passing day," he told reporters Wednesday.)

But the project, also backed by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and other Democrats, has drawn President Trump's ire and became a flashpoint in budget negotiations earlier this year.

Despite the lack of Gateway-specific language in the House bill, there are pots of money it could qualify for. And Frelinghuysen expressed confidence it would be completed eventually.

"This project is going to be built at some point," he said. Frelinghuysen, who is not seeking re-election this year and plans to retire, added: "Sometimes you can achieve the objective without the specific language."

Guiding the fiscal 2018 spending package, and the fiscal 2019 bills appropriators are now working, is a two-year budget framework that rolled back federal spending caps.

"I think by and large these 2018 levels are sustainable," Price said after the hearing. "HUD especially has been underfunded for years."

"So 2018, I hope, is a new benchmark," he added.

Federal fiscal years begin on Oct. 1. But in recent years Congress has habitually failed to enact full-year spending legislation on time and has instead used stopgap measures to keep the government running.

Trump vowed in March he would never sign a bill like the 2018 omnibus legislation again. And, since then, his administration has been looking to clawback previously allocated federal funds.

This story has been updated with additional comment.

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

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