House extends highway, transit programs for 1 year
The U.S. House of Representatives passed a $15 billion jobs bill Thursday that also extends authorization for federal surface transportation programs until the end of the year.
The vote follows a turbulent week during which disagreements between the House and Senate over a jobs bill led to a stopgap measure to extend funding for transportation programs, as well as unemployment and certain health benefits for an additional 30 days. The emergency legislation stalled Friday because of a filibuster by Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., which led to a two-day shutdown of the Department of Transportation and threw state highway construction projects into turmoil without the certainty of federal reimbursements to pay contractors. On Tuesday, Bunning relented and the 30-day extension was approved.
The Hiring Incentives to Restore Employment Act, which features tax cuts for small businesses and incentives to hire unemployed workers, is an amended version of the jobs bill that passed the Senate. The House approved it Thursday by a vote of 217-201.
The bill includes a $19.5 billion general fund transfer to the Highway Trust Fund to keep it from going in the red in June, offers additional federal government support for states and localities to borrow for school and energy projects through the Build America Bonds program, and restores $8.7 billion to highway programs that was rescinded from the HTF in the 2005 SAFETEA-LU transportation bill. The provisions effectively restore funding for highway programs to the level that existed before SAFETEU-LU expired at the end of September, necessitating a series of short-term extensions that eliminated $1 billion in available funds per month because of arcane budget rules.
The bill provides spending authority to Congress for $63.5 billion in fiscal year 2010 and $77 billion for the 15-month period from Oct. 1, 2009 until the end of this year.
The general fund transfer reimburses the Highway Trust Fund for interest it should have collected since 1998. The bill puts the HTF on a more sound financial footing because it will be able to accrue interest going forward, as other federal trust funds are able to do.
In December, the House passed a $154 billion jobs bill that included an additional $37.3 billion for transportation infrastructure projects. House leaders said they would try to advance additional measures to create jobs and improve the highway provisions in the HIRE Act. They also plan to expand the Build America Bond program that was created under last year's stimulus act to subsidize interest payments on municipal bonds for infrastructure projects.
Rep. James Oberstar, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said the HIRE Act would help provide states with capability to invest in projects as the money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act winds down. The legislation made $34.2 billion available for highway and transit projects and 71 percent of that money is already under contract, representing more than 11,500 projects.
He reiterated in a statement on the floor that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has promised to soon add measures in an upcoming bill to fix two provisions in the HIRE Act. Oberstar is concerned that two discretionary highway grant categories would permanently allocate 58 percent of the money to four states and leave 22 states with no money, and that bonus funding to states is only based on six of 13 current state highway formula programs. He said he preferred to amend the bill now, but that it was more important to conclude a surface transportation extension without further delay.
The HIRE Act now goes to the Senate for its consideration. ' Eric Kulisch