What’s the hold up?
Since 2006, when federal legislation that helps fund the cleanup and revitalization of brownfields expired, local officials have been anticipating its reauthorization. But, despite some recent action in the House, that bill still has not been reauthorized, and city and county officials are concerned it might not be any time soon. That has become, in fact, the sentiment about several pieces of legislation crucial to local governments’ budgets.
Some officials predict that in this highly charged election year, partisan politics will dictate a congressional agenda that will accomplish very little. “Many lawmakers are saying, ‘Why should we adopt priorities now, when we can have a better prospect next term when there’s a new administration?’” says Ed Rosado, legislative director for the Washington-based National Association of Counties.
Officials say federal funds are needed for many programs in addition to the brownfields program, including the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act, and the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant program, which was approved in 2007 but has yet to receive any funds.
A brownfields reauthorization bill was introduced in the House by Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, head of the Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee. The subcommittee held a hearing on the bill in mid-February, but the Senate has not acted. “I have heard very little out of the Senate on brownfields,” says Paul Connor, executive director of the Washington-based National Association of Local Government Environmental Professionals. “We are part of a brownfields coalition, and we have been meeting with lawmakers’ staffers beginning last year. Many staffers are saying the same thing: increased funding is important.”
Connor says members of the coalition were “pleasantly surprised when” the bill was introduced in the House. However, he says, “As far as we know, that’s the only thing happening.” Numerous calls to Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer’s office were unanswered.
Rosado says the reauthorization of the Secure Rural Schools legislation, which is operating under a four-year extension, is in jeopardy because Congress seems to disagree about its priorities. “We’re trying to get them to understand this program needs to be reauthorized on a longer-term basis,” Rosado says. “If not, the funds will dry up.”
The extension of SCHIP is “just an extension of the existing legislation. It doesn’t expand the program or provide additional funds,” says Neil Bomberg principal legislative counsel for the Washington-based National League of Cities.
So, he says the SCHIP fight is “a party fight. It’s a fight that has caused a great rift within Congress and made it hard to move forward. I don’t know if the election year is the sole motivation. I don’t know all the motivation,” he says. “What I know is that Congress cannot seem to figure out how to get to a place where they all walk away having accomplished something and can all be proud.”
The author is the Washington correspondent for American City & County.