Capitol to Capitol
An Information Service of NCSL's Standing Committees

Volume 18    Issue 13 - April 20, 2012


On April 18, the House Ways and Means Committee cast a voice vote on unnumbered legislation that would eliminate the $1.7 billion Social Services Block Grant (SSBG). Calls for SSBG’s demise initially surfaced last month in the House FY 2013 Budget Resolution, H.Con.Res. 112. Six committees, including Ways and Means, are on an April 27 deadline to find $261 billion in mandatory and entitlement and other savings (“reconciliation”) for deficit reduction and SSBG will be part of that package. NCSL opposed the committee’s action in an April 16 letter signed by South Dakota Senator Tom Hansen and Kansas Representative Barbara Ballard calling it “a cost shift to states.” In the 46-year history of federal block grants, SSBG has earned a positive reputation among states for its flexibility and versatility. State legislatures use these funds for daycare, adult protective services, case management, adoption, independent living services for the elderly and disabled and other critical efforts to serve vulnerable families, children and the elderly. Full text of the NCSL letter is available at staff contacts: Sheri Steisel, Emily Wengrovius


Also on April 18, the House Agriculture Committee took steps to restructure the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and simultaneously find $33 billion in savings for the House’s reconciliation efforts. The committee’s actions on unnumbered legislation could leave states with reduced program flexibility, increased state administrative costs and less federal funding. All three are accomplished by restricting state options to use categorical eligibility to qualify individuals for various social services programs, eliminating bonuses for states that reduce SNAP error rates and repealing recent benefit increases for SNAP beneficiaries. Loss of categorical eligibility will require future duplicative eligibility determinations, thus increasing state costs. The House budget resolution calls for creation of a SNAP block grant. The committee’s actions come up short of that goal, but seek a major restructuring instead. NCSL staff contacts: Sheri Steisel, Emily Wengrovius


Both the Senate and House returned from recess ready to begin the FY 2013 appropriations process. The Senate Appropriations Committee successfully approved several spending bills, but not before setting overall spending allocations, known as 302 (b)s. The allocation for the Department of Defense saw the largest decrease, a cut from FY 2012 of almost $30 billion down to $604.4 billion. This is in contrast with the House, which increased funding for defense and eliminated the sequestration trigger. The remaining 11 spending allocations in the Senate received modest increases or decreases or saw level funding. On Thursday, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved both the Commerce-Justice-Science and Transportation-Housing and Urban Development bills, which saw decreases of $1 billion and $4 billion, respectively. Each passed by a vote of 28-1, with Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson alone in dissent. States would receive $1 billion for state and local law enforcement assistance, which includes funding for Byrne grants and the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program (SCAAP). In terms of infrastructure, the Senate bill would provide $39.1 billion for highway investments and $1.75 billion for rail investments. Meanwhile, House appropriations subcommittees also began acting on spending bills, including Commerce-Justice-Science. It would be similar to the top-line funding proposed by the Senate, while Byrne grants would receive $370 million and SCAAP funding allocated at $165 million. The Energy and Water appropriations subcommittee also advanced a $32 billion spending bill. 

Looming over these discussions is the question of what the overall spending limit will be. The Senate abided by the $1.047 trillion cap passed in the Budget Control Act, which in its chamber has received bipartisan support. Conversely, the House is being guided by the $1.028 trillion discretionary limit proposed in the House budget resolution (H. Con. Res. 112). The White House has stated the president would veto any spending bill that is lower than the Senate’s level. Stay tuned. NCSL staff contacts: Michael Bird, Jeff Hurley (appropriations generally), Ben Husch, Jennifer Arguinzoni (transportation), Susan Parnas Frederick, Jennifer Arguinzoni (law and criminal justice), Ben Husch, Marcus Peterson (energy)


For 16 months, the deficit reduction recommendations made in December, 2011, by the President’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform (“Bowles-Simpson”) have lingered. They got a jolt of “new life” yesterday when North Dakota Senator Kent Conrad released his FY 2013 budget resolution (“The Fiscal Commission Budget Plan”) which mirrors the $5.4 trillion deficit reduction plan envisioned by Bowles-Simpson. It joins Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan’s H.Con.Res. 112 and President Obama’s FY 2013 budget as a likely three-way deficit reduction negotiating starting point after the November elections. It includes cuts to discretionary spending, comprehensive tax reform and achieves savings in health care costs. Senator Conrad’s plan would use the same discretionary funding levels as the Bowles-Simpsons proposal through FY 2022, with funding in FY 2013 set at $1.043 trillion. Federal revenue would increase by $2.4 trillion and reach 20.5 percent of GDP over the next 10 years, compared to the baseline set in current law, by reducing tax rates, broadening the tax base, and reducing or eliminating many tax expenditures. While Senator Conrad’s budget outline enjoys introduction, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid continues to insist that it and other budget resolutions will not garner the 60 floor votes needed to move forward. NCSL staff contacts: Michael Bird, Jeff Hurley


This week the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 4348, a shell of a surface transportation reauthorization bill that will trigger a conference committee with the Senate. H.R. 4348’s passage gives Congress and the administration 163 more days to find the ever-elusive consensus on a long-term reauthorization bill. Are prospects good? Not if you look closely just at funding issues. The Senate comes to the table with its bipartisan $109 billion, two-year Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21; S. 1813). Because of known shortages in the highway trust fund, S. 1813 relies on transfers from the general fund, the leaking underground trust fund and other resources to keep highway, mass transit and highway safety programs going at essentially current levels. All have found disfavor with the House. House Republicans will conference seeking approval for additional revenues from the Keystone XL pipeline project and enhanced domestic energy production, both of which have been non-starters with most Senate Democrats and both of which are in H.R. 4348. Also in the mix are H.R. 4348 provisions seeking shortened environment reviews of transportation projects and transfer of regulatory authority over coal ash to states. Prognosis: caution, road work ahead. NCSL staff contacts: Ben Husch, Jennifer Arguinzoni (transportation); Tamra Spielvogel, Marcus Peterson (environment)


While the nation waits for the U.S. Supreme Court to rule on the Affordable Care Act and state immigration law challenges, states and localities got a unanimous nod from the high court in Filarksy v. Delia on April 17, 2012. The ruling permits government-contracted attorneys to receive qualified immunity under certain circumstances. NCSL joined in an amicus brief filed by the State and Local Legal Center (SLLC), a brief that argued that qualified immunity is essential to encourage competitive rates and to foster legal representation from individuals performing occasional services for governments. NCSL staff contact: Susan Parnas Frederick; SLLC contact: Lisa Soronen


On April 16, NCSL sent a letter to congressional leadership urging Congress to pass a multi-year reauthorization of the United States Export-Import Bank and increase its lending cap. Connecticut Senator Gary LeBeau and Alaska Representative Anna Fairclough, co-chairs of NCSL’s Labor and Economic Development Committee, used the City/State Partners Program as an example of Ex-Im’s importance to state and local governments. “The City/State program has been a useful resource for state governments and state economic development agencies in indentifying businesses, markets and trading partners for U.S. goods and businesses abroad,” they wrote. Immediate action needs to be taken before the current reauthorization expires May 31 or the bank’s lending authority is depleted, which may occur before the reauthorization deadline. The letter can be viewed here: NCSL staff contacts: Jon Jukuri, Michael Reed


The Senate Finance Committee is poised to hear witnesses discuss the implications of future federal tax reform on state and local tax and fiscal policy on April 25. The committee’s hearing will include discussion of legislation that would authorize states to collect sales and use taxes from remote sellers (“streamlined.”). Both House and Senate panels will commence the hearing and markup process of a 2012 Farm Bill next week.