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Legislative Updates

Keeping you up to date on policy action from the presidential administration and the U.S. Congress.

March 2011

Download PDF: March 2011
 

» 2011 Partnership with NAACP's Legal Defense Fund- Redistricting & Voting Fairness

"New Census Numbers Trigger Redistricting Efforts Across the Country"

The U.S. Census Bureau (Bureau) released a report revealing changes in the country's racial and ethnicdiversity. The report reveals that the country's minority population grew from 86.9 to 111.9 millionbetween 2000 and 2010 -- an increase of more than 29%. According to the Bureau, the U.S.'s blackpopulation increased from 34.6 to 38.9 million between 2000 and 2010, representing a 12% increase.There have also been significant increases in the country's Hispanic/Latino population, which grew by 27.3million to top the 50 million mark--a 43% jump.

The report also revealed significant geographic shifts. Texas joined California, the District of Columbia,Hawaii, and New Mexico as "majority-minority states." In addition, Houston, Dallas, and Atlanta wereamong metropolitan areas around the country that experienced large increases in population, addingmore than 1 million residents over the past decade.

The new Census data reveals that the U.S. is becoming increasingly racially diverse. These trends haveimportant implications as redistricting commences around the country. The NAACP Legal Defenseand Educational Fund will be analyzing these numbers closely to ensure that redistricting efforts, now underway in a number of states, are carried out in a way that both protects African American voting strength and reflects the changing demographics of communities.

Redistricting-related questions, inquiries, and complaints can be directed to Kristen Clarke at the Legal Defense Fund at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. A complete copy of the latest U.S. Census Bureau Report on Race can be found here: http://www.census.gov/prod/cen2010/briefs/c2010br-02.pdf. More information regarding the implications of this data for redistricting can be found at www.redrawingthelines.org.

 

FEDERAL IMPACT ON STATE BUDGETS

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Main Street Fairness Act

Currently, states and municipalities/counties are unable to collect sales tax on businesses physically located outside of their respective jurisdictions. This translates into billions of dollars in lost revenue to states when residents purchase items online. Twenty-four states have passed laws so that an interstate compact could be put into place allowing for the collection of sales tax online. To make this agreement binding, federal legislation must be passed supporting the compact. Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Mike Enzi (R-WY) have introduced supporting legislation, which would equalize the tax structure between virtual and physical retailers. It would also provide billions in additional revenue for states and localities. With passage of this federal legislation, it is likely that additional states pass legislation to simplify their sales tax and join the compact.

Federal Budget Battle Update

Over six months into FY2011 and still without permanent funding for the federal government, the back-to-back stop-gap funding measures (with 2-week and 3-week continuing resolutions after the leadership change in the House) have done more than just aggravate affected agencies unsure of their funding through the rest of the year. Each week a continuing resolution has been extended under this new Congress, about $2 billion is cut from the budget. So far, the tally has reached cuts of $10 billion. While states have fared relatively well up to this point, full-year cuts may be coming soon and may be much deeper. Congress has also eliminated all earmark programs, which provide significant funding for state and local projects. The last time earmark elimination occurred in FY2007, funding pots for state assistance were still available and often became competitive grants. The $2.6 billion, which had been slated for earmarks that supported various local projects across the country, will have to come from elsewhere.

Other cuts have included programs targeted for elimination by President Obama and Senate Democrats including the Brownfields Redevelopment Program under the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which targets revitalizing sites formerly used for industrial purposes. Also eliminated is the State Health Access Grants, which helps states increase access to healthcare coverage for the uninsured. This program has provided $75 million to 13 states- Colorado, Kansas, Maine, Minnesota, North Carolina, New York, Nevada, Oregon, Texas, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. Of note, while the President's budget contained cuts in certain places, it also added funding in other areas, while these Continuing Resolutions do not provide any additional funding.

Last Month's Special Report on the Federal Budget

If you missed last month's Special Report, you can click here. In it, NBCSL's policy team lays out a side-by-side comparison of FY2010 funding levels next to the President's and House's proposals in areas of critical importance to our members.

 

» Energy, Transportation and Environment

High-Speed Rail Grant Money Available
The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) announced $2.4 billion in competitive grants to states to fund High-Speed Rail. Projects will be judged on their ability to reduce energy consumption, improve the region's overall transit network, and create sustained economic growth. Attached to the grant is a 100% "Buy America" mandate requiring the use of U.S. manufacturers and workers. For more information, DOT has provided details on the Federal Railroad Administration's website at http://www.fra.dot.gov/.

"Response to Japan's Nuclear Disaster"
On March 17th, President Obama spoke at a press conference about his administration's response to Japan's nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. In addition to providing assistance to Japan, President Obama issued an order to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to launch a review of American nuclear plants to determine what changes, if any, should take place with regard to construction, operations, contingency plans, etc. NRC Chairman Greg Jaczko and Deputy Secretary of Energy Dan Poneman held a press conference later the same day with additional details regarding their response. The Nuclear Energy Institute, a public policy organization representing the nuclear technologies industry, hosted a webinar addressing its role in the response on the National Conference of State Legislature's website. The webinar can be viewed by clicking here.

 

» Housing

Modeled after the Community Development Block Grants Program, the Neighborhood Stabilization Program (NSP) has provided both formula and grant funding to states and localities. The NSP financially assists communities in addressing widespread foreclosures in their hardest hit areas. The program has received three rounds of funding, the first and last being formula grants, while the second was a competitive grant. The House passed a bill this month, H.R. 861, the Neighborhood Stabilization Program Termination Act, which rescinds the last round of funding. In addition, H.R. 861 will eliminate NSP by permanently defunding the program. H.R. 861's proponents argue that the program fails to aid homeowners who are losing their homes. While the program does not typically provide direct assistance to homeowners, the program's intent is to help communities reduce their number of foreclosed properties, thereby stabilizing local home values. The bill is not expected to become law, but if it were, any unobligated funds would be rescinded by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The Making Home Affordable Program (HAMP), also targeted for elimination by the House, was designed to aid homeowners directly in avoiding foreclosure by allowing them to modify their existing mortgages, according to HAMP's proponents. Earlier this month, the House passed H.R. 839, the Home Affordable Modification Program Termination Act, which would terminate the authority of the Secretary of Treasury to provide any new mortgage modifications, effectively ending the program. This act will also not likely become law, as the Senate is unlikely to act on this matter and the President would veto such a bill.

 

» Labor, Military and Veterans Affairs

New Department of Labor (DOL) Grants
The U.S. Department of Labor is accepting applications for several grants posted on its website. Grants include funding for intense mentorship of young, low-income parents; career training; housing assistance to farm workers; and re-integration of juvenile ex-offenders. Please click here for the full listing!

Below are additional grants and benefits with links to more details:
  • The DOL's Veteran's Employment and Training Service announced the availability of up to $600,000 in "Stand Down" grants intended to provide as many as 10,000 homeless veterans with opportunities to reintegrate into society. Grants, issued on a first-come, first-served basis, will go to funding local community one- or multi-day events that provide veterans with myriad social services. Click here for details.
  • The DOL announced the availability of $40 million for Enhanced Transitional Jobs Demonstration grants to help low-income, non-custodial parents and ex-offenders with significant barriers to employment obtain the skills they need through special work opportunities, programs, and services. The DOL plans to award grants to organizations that will assist "hard-to-employ" populations in acquiring jobs beyond transitional employment. Click here for details.
  • According to a press release last week, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) will begin providing health care to eligible veterans in halfway houses and other post-incarceration housing under a new program that seeks to reduce repeat offenses. Previously, the VA could not provide health care, including mental health care, for those under the obligation of another government entity.
 

» Telecommunications, Science and Technology

"Potential Changes to Rights-of-Way Compensation to States Coming"
The Federal Communication Commission (FCC) has indicated that it may release an NOI (Notice of Inquiry) as soon as the first week of April regarding the setting of rules for local rights-of-way compensation of broadband deployment. Currently, when a telecom company proposes to lay fiber for broadband within cities, it typically does so along the public right-of-way next to roads and utility lines. States, counties, and cities charge companies for this access to the public right-of-way. The compensation structure for these charges is usually set by states and regulated by congress, according to the National Telecommunications Act, last authorized in 1996. The FCC has made a number of statements and taken numerous actions demonstrating a potential interest in pursuing rules that could dramatically modify the current structure.

Click here to read FCC's statements.

If the FCC publishes an NOI and includes language in the notice that compensation will change, should change, or otherwise suggests a shift to current practice, The Big Seven, an official non-partisan, non-profit consisting of member organizations such as NCSL, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and the National Governors Association, has warned that some corporations may use that language as rationale to stop all payment of right-of-way fees to states and local governments. Stopped payments could result in hundreds of millions of dollars lost until the NOI is completed. For example, the City of Dallas issued a public statement citing concerns that it could lose over $100 million alone if its rights-of-way fees were ceased.

 

» Emergency Preparedness and Homeland Security

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced the launch of E-Verify Self Check. In a March press release, the USCIS described E-Verify Self Check as a simple and effective tool for an individual to check his or her own employment eligibility status. The program is being rolled out in phases and is now available online for residents of Idaho, Arizona, Colorado, Mississippi, Virginia, and Washington, D.C.

U.S. Rep. Peter T. King (R-NY), Chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security, joined by Ranking Member Bennie G. Thompson (D-MS) and five others, introduced H.R. 607, the Broadband for First Responders Act of 2011. This legislation aims to strengthen the communications capabilities of America's first responders by reallocating the D Block communications spectrum to public safety. In the Federal Communication Commission's (FCC) National Broadband Plan unveiled last March, it proposed selling access rights to a 10 megahertz (MHz) portion of the 700 MHz wireless spectrum band to the private sector. This 10 MHz portion, also referred as the D block, was offered for auction, but no company successfully bid on it. Had it been privatized, first responders' needs would have been prioritized if networks became overwhelmed during crises (such as 9/11). They also would have enjoyed access to roaming under the FCC's terms. Instead, H.R. 607 would place the D Block exclusively into the hands of public safety. It would also facilitate the building out/development of the network and provide standards for the spectrum needs of public safety agencies.

 

» Education

On March 30th, the U.S. House passed H.R. 471, the Scholarships for Opportunity and Results (SOAR) Act, by a vote of 225-195. This bill reauthorizes the District of Columbia Opportunity Scholarship Program, which provides a tax-funded voucher to help low-income parents pay for their children's tuition at a private school of their choosing. D.C.'s Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton has vigorously opposed the bill, asserting that it siphons off desperately needed public monies to private schools. Congresswoman Holmes also accused the bill's proponents of overstepping their bounds by involving themselves in what she considers a state/local issue.

Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-PA) along with Sens. Thad Cochran (R-MS) and Michael Bennet (D-CO) are sponsoring H.R. 5071, the ESEA Fiscal Fairness Act, which they say would close a loophole that currently allows funding inequities within districts receiving Title I funds.

Background:
Passed in 1965, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) contains a "comparability" provision requiring districts to ensure that all schools receive comparable financial resources. In the wake of Brown v. Board of Education I & II and the dismantling of the "Separate but Equal" doctrine in schools, this legislation sought to establish a foundation of equal funding, believing that was a significant factor driving equivalent educational outcomes. Yet, many during this time also believed that high-poverty schools faced additional challenges to student achievement, which would require supplemental resources funneled strategically. Title I funding was the mechanism developed to provide this "extra boost" to help schools make technological improvements, expand support for teachers, increase learning time, etc.

Rep. Fattah and Sens. Cochran and Bennet have argued the ESEA currently contains a loophole that allows districts to fund unevenly and use Title 1 monies to back-fill the gaps, rather than its intended purpose. The bill, which would actually amend ESEA's section 1120A(c), includes among other things requirements for increased transparency in district reporting and more explicit definitions of expenditures, especially with regard to teacher and staff salaries. As of yet, no one has gone on record opposing the legislation. However, it is expected that school district officials may have concerns about how to implement something so large-scale and potentially costly. (Contribution from The Education Trust)

The U.S. Department of Education (DOE) issued several press releases this month announcing recent activities:

 

» Health and Human Services

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (US DHHS) released its National Strategy for Quality Improvement in Health Care (National Quality Strategy). The strategy, called for under the Affordable Care Act, creates goals and priorities that guide local, state, and national efforts to improve the quality of health care in the United States.

Beginning January 1, 2011, the Affordable Care Act guaranteed free preventive services to seniors, including wellness visits and certain screenings. The US DHHS reported that between January 1st and February 23rd of this year, over 150,000 seniors and others with Medicare B received an annual wellness physical.

One of the largest sources of federal funding to the states is in the form of Medicaid. Under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the federal government increased its funding for Medicaid to an average of $2.68 from the federal government for every dollar spent by state government. Congress had extended the provision a number of times to allow state governments to continue receiving this support. Due to fiscal constraints, that funding began being reigned in starting January 1, 2011, and will continue with graduated reductions through the year. On January 1, 2011, the federal match declined to an average of $2.31 for every state dollar spent. Beginning in April 1st, another reduction will reduce the match to an average of $2.10. And, as of July 1st, the reduction will return to an average of $1.60 for each state dollar spent, placing funding back at its pre-stimulus levels. States should be taking these funding reductions into account as they consider their budgets and services.

 

» Business, Financial Services & Insurance

"The Next Stage of Financial Regulatory Reform- The Debit Card Rule"
Senior Economic Advisors to President Barack Obama as well as Democrat members of Congress have stated they believe that the "Reasonable Fees and Rules for Payment Card Transactions" provision within S. 3217: The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (also known as the "Durbin Amendment" or the "debit card rule"), could potentially have a negative impact on consumers, community banks, and credit unions. The Durbin Amendment is a provision which aims to regulate the interchange fees charged to merchants on debit cards transactions. The provision's supporters say that it will ensure interchange fees charged by banks are "reasonable and proportional to the cost incurred" and sets the maximum fee at 12 cents per transaction. This provision would affect electronic debit transactions but not credit card transactions and is planned to go into effect on July 21, 2011.

Supporters of the Durbin Amendment maintain that lowering the "out of control fees" will allow retailers to pass along billions of dollars of savings to consumers with lower prices and will also enable retailers to compete in increasingly competitive markets. The bill sponsor, Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL), argues that small businesses will finally be relieved from years of high fees imposed by card companies (such as Visa and MasterCard) and consumers will benefit from increased competition, discounts, and lower prices.

The Electronic Payments Coalition hosted a panel discussion this month with Shawn Miles (former Global Head of Public Policy for MasterCard), David Evans (Founder of Market Platform Dynamics), and David Willis (Senior V.P. of Navy Federal Credit Union) all issuing warnings about the potential dangers this provision may bring for consumers and small businesses. They concluded that the $15.7 billion in revenue banks receive annually from merchants will be reduced by 80% due to the rule seeking "reasonable and proportional fees. " They also argued that the sudden reduction in annual revenue from the new rule will end up being recouped by banks through consumer payments in the form of charges for opening checking accounts, debit card transactions, rewards programs, online banking, and mobile banking. In "falling domino scenario" fashion, they warned that this will substantially affect low-income constituents and the unbanked population as they will not be able to afford to open or maintain these bank accounts with new and/or increased service fees. Furthermore, they surmised that merchants would not likely pass on the savings they incur from the provision back onto consumers through reduced pricing for their products.

Currently, there are two pieces of legislation within the House (H.R. 1081, The Consumers Payment System Protection Act) and the Senate (S. 575, The Debit Interchange Fee Study Act: Stop, Study, and Start Over), which request a 2-year delay on the implementation of this rule as well as a study performed by the U.S. Treasury to observe the potential impact on consumers and small financial institutions. CBC member Rep. David Scott (D-GA) stated, "A delay in the implementation of this rule is definitely in order.. I think we owe it to the American people, to these institutions, to be able to delay and make sure that we get this rule right." The Federal Reserve has since stated publicly that it will not be able to make the implementation deadline. Rep. Barney Frank responded that he would support legislative action to postpone the deadline.

 

» International Affairs

Special Brief for Women's History Month- "Women Taking Charge in Africa"
NBCSL staff attended a panel discussion, "Women Taking Charge in Africa," hosted by the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of African Affairs. Panelists were Cheryl Benton (Deputy Assistant Secretary of State), Susan Page (Deputy Assistant Secretary of State), Melanne Verveer (Ambassador-at-Large for Women's International Issues), and Carla Koppell (Director of the Institute for Inclusive Security). Discussion topics included challenges that women in Africa are currently facing, President Obama and his administration's plan to address these challenges, and dialogue on how advocacy organizations could assist in these efforts.

The panelists expressed urgency in promoting the advancement of African women and girls by integrating women's rights/gender equality into the global discourse on international development; empowering women economically by increasing their access to capital, education, health, technology, and land; strengthening the role and involvement of women in development efforts; increasing transparency and collaborations; and fighting cultural traditions that oppress women. They highlighted gender-specific challenges faced by African women: gender-based violence, poverty, abuse, maternal and child mortalities, deprivation, sexual assault, child marriage, and female genital mutilation. Ambassador Verveer was adamant that these challenges are a world pandemic and must be approached as a security/civil rights/health/economic issue as opposed to isolation as a "women issue." For example, Ambassador Veveer illustrated, the physical and psychological devastation of sexual assault not only impacts a woman and her family, sexual assault can be measured in terms of its collective economic impact on a nation as decreased productivity and lost wages take their toll on a country's gross domestic product (GDP) and future economic growth. Also, new HIV/AIDS infections hinder the ability to help those already infected. Panelists highlighted the strong positive correlations between peaceful and prosperous nations and treatment of women (adherence to women's rights). Secretary of State Hilary Clinton touted these issues as a high priority for the Administration, declaring "The world cannot move forward if half of its women are left behind."

Panelists also recognized advancements African women have made, such as in Rwanda where there are currently more women in parliament than men; Uganda where women have led efforts to complete a peace agreement; South Africa, whose women who have transformed the security sector; and Liberia, which currently boasts the continent's first elected female President, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.

Still, panelists held that even more advancements could be made through capacity-building, increased political involvement, economic empowerment (poverty-reduction and wealth-building), and investment in women-focused organizations. Panelists also asserted that women should be included on committees and task force teams so they can acquire new skills and parlay unique insights and experience in passing and implementing legislation/policies. Currently, women make up less than 10% of speakers in the world with regard to peace talks and less than 3% of the signatories.