The Senate Appropriations Committee will meet today to vote on a stimulus spending bill that offers less funding than requested by water utilities, municipal housing finance officials, and some senators. The groups are pushing for a revision.
The Senate Democrats' proposal was unveiled late Friday and contains $365 billion of total funding for transportation and other infrastructure, public housing, education, energy, and low-income assistance. By comparison, the House version contains $385 billion.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said she plans to put that chamber's version of the stimulus to the floor for a vote this week, possibly by tomorrow. Democrats' proposals from both chambers would be paired with tax breaks for a total $825 billion stimulus package that leaders hope to pass before the Presidents Day recess in mid-February.
The Senate committee's stimulus plan contains $40 billion for surface and public transportation funding, including competitive grants to state and local governments, and $1.4 billion to help finance rural water and sewer loans and grants, among other provisions.
In a letter to Senate appropriations and tax committee leaders, the National Association of Counties said the legislation should require governors to certify that they will share highway funds with local governments on a fair and equitable basis.
The Senate panel's plan would not provide funding for community development block grants, which contrasted with the House version that offered $1 billion for CDBGs. The grants can be used to repay bonds, in conjunction with bonds, or as a debt service reserve.
"We were surprised and disappointed" to find no CDBG help in the Senate committee's bill, said John Murphy, executive director for the National Association of Local Housing Finance Agencies. Murphy said the group planned to talk about the omission of CDBGs during an afternoon meeting with senators yesterday.
"We're certainly pleased that the [HOME Investment Partnerships Program] gets $2.25 billion," he added. The program provides grants to state and local governments to buy, build, and rehabilitate affordable housing or give assistance to tenants of single and multifamily housing. It can be used in conjunction with bond financing, Murphy said.
Additionally, while the House proposal would endow state revolving funds with a total of $8 billion with which states could make low-cost loans for water and sewer projects, the Senate committee capped its proposal for SRFs at $6 billion.
"Obviously we prefer the House number to the Senate number," said Rick Farrell, executive director of the Council of Infrastructure Financing Authorities. But even just $6 billion for water and sewer projects would be a massive gain on the funding given during recent years when the program was drastically reduced by the Bush administration.
The Bush administration last year proposed $555 million for the clean water state revolving loan fund, compared to the up to $1.35 billion it received as recently as 2003.
Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., sent Senate leaders and spending panel leaders a letter earlier this month co-signed by 10 other senators, asking for a drastic increase in funding to sewer and water projects. The letter asked for the Appropriations Committee to "provide a more robust investment of at least $32 billion for the modernization of our aging water infrastructure."
The senators also asked for formula grants of $20 billion dedicated for ready-to-go wastewater infrastructure projects and $10 billion for ready-to-go drinking water infrastructure projects.
"While traditional state matching requirements are waived, funding levels are far lower than the states' demonstrated need," said the letter, referring to the House version, which is larger than the Senate's. "Given the states' strained financial condition, the current cost of capital, and the state of the municipal bond market, we believe these criteria put water infrastructure funding beyond the reach of most communities across this country."
Mayors are pushing, too, for greatly increased investment in several bond-related areas as the Senate moves forward its stimulus package.
The U.S. Conference of Mayors released an open letter yesterday asking for "no less than $8 billion" for CDBGs, arguing that 779 cities have $26 billion in CDBG projects ready to go. NACo also is asking that at least $8 billion be provided for CDBGs in the legislation.
The group also said it wants grants, not loans, for water and sewer projects. Moving stimulus funds through SRFs as proposed in the Senate and House stimulus plans would cause "significant delays in getting the money out quickly as a result of interest levels that will be charged for repayment and the prohibition in many states against certain water systems applying for funds," the mayors' letter said.