Department of Transportation Announces Rail Safety Initiatives, Senate Floats Bipartisan Rail Safety Bill
The Federal Railroad Administration announced a new safety initiative with focused inspections on rail routes for trains carrying high-hazard flammables and other trains carrying large volumes of hazmat commodities. Agency inspectors will assess the overall condition of rail infrastructure as well as railroads’ compliance with regulatory requirements governing track. The findings will be shared with railroads as well as rail labor organizations and the public. The announcement follows an earlier commitment from the Department of Transportation to “ensure freight rail accountability and improve safety” through its two-person train crew requirement, among other measures; to deploy resources from last year’s $1 trillion infrastructure legislation to upgrade and modernize rail systems; and to evaluate new rulemaking to require electronically controlled pneumatic breaks on specific trains.
In Congress, Ohio Sens. Sherrod Brown (D) and J.D. Vance (R) announced plans to introduce the Railway Safety Act of 2023, a bipartisan measure that would establish new safety requirements for trains carrying hazardous materials. The bill mandates two-person crews, increased fines for safety violations and funding for updated rail cars and research. Read more.
White House Releases National Strategy, Renewing Commitment to Cybersecurity
The White House released the National Cybersecurity Strategy with the intent to “secure the full benefits of a safe and secure digital ecosystem for all Americans.” The strategy, issued on March 1, represents the administration’s renewed commitment to collaborate with all levels of government, industry and citizens to “rebalance the responsibility for defending cyberspace” and “to make fundamental shifts in how the United States allocates roles, responsibilities and resources in cyberspace.” Through the work of its Cybersecurity and Privacy Task Force, NCSL is actively engaged with the administration to ensure these goals are aligned with those of the states. The full document is available here.
EPA Announces $2.4B for Clean Water Investments in States
The Environmental Protection Agency announced $2.4 billion for the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, the second wave of funding from last year’s $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure legislation. As a state-federal partnership, the revolving fund provides communities low-cost financing for a wide range of water quality infrastructure projects ranging from the construction of publicly owned treatment works to watershed pilot projects and national estuary conservation management plans.
Relatedly, allocations and program updates from the 2023 Drinking Water State Revolving Fund are expected later this month, pending completion of the seventh Drinking Water Infrastructure Needs Survey and Assessment. More information on the clean water fund, including state-by-state allocation of 2023 funding, can be found here.
The EPA also released a memorandum to states regarding water system cybersecurity. The EPA indicates that states must include cybersecurity when they conduct periodic audits of water systems, and their guidance highlights different approaches for states to fulfill this responsibility. The agency is providing technical assistance and encourages states to submit comments on the guidance at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more.
DHS Announces Funding for Preparedness Grants
The Department of Homeland Security has announced $2 billion in preparedness grants for fiscal year 2023. These grants require that at least 30% of the awarded amount be dedicated to six priority areas: election security, cybersecurity, soft targets and crowded places, intelligence and information sharing, domestic violent extremism, and community preparedness and resilience. There is a 15% minimum spending requirement across all priority areas except cybersecurity, which does not have a minimum. The remaining 15% can be allocated based on community needs. More details can be found in FEMA’s bulletin.
Emergency SNAP Allotments End; Millions Impacted
Emergency allotments, which began in March 2020 to help address rising food insecurity and hunger during the pandemic, officially ended in February. While 18 states ended the emergency payments earlier, over 30 million beneficiaries in the remaining 32 states, the District of Columbia and the territories will see monthly reductions beginning in March. Additionally, roughly half of SNAP households received a cost-of-living increase in their Social Security or Supplemental Security Income benefits, or both, that may further reduce their regular SNAP benefits. Notwithstanding increases to the regular SNAP benefit level in 2022, many beneficiaries will see reductions ranging between $95 and $250 monthly beginning this month, with older adults seeing the steepest declines, from $281 to $23 monthly. Read more.
Senate, House Vote to Overturn Federal ESG Rulemaking; Veto Is Anticipated
The Senate and House used the Congressional Review Act to vote to overturn a Department of Labor rulemaking intended to remove barriers to considering environmental, social and governance factors, also known as ESG, in retirement investing. The Senate passed the repeal, 50-46, following in the House’s footsteps, having passed its disapproval days prior with a 216-204 vote. The rule, Prudence and Loyalty in Selecting Plan Investments and Exercising Shareholder Rights, follows executive order 14030, which directed the federal government to identify and assess policies to protect the life savings and pensions of America’s workers and families from the threats of climate-related financial risk. It is likely the president will veto the disapproval. For more information on the CRA, visit NCSL’s Congressional Review Act and overview and tracking webpage.
Supreme Court Hears Arguments in Case Challenging Student Debt Relief Plan
The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Biden v. Nebraska, which is the student loan debt relief case. The arguments focused on whether the plaintiff states had satisfied Article III standing, whether the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency (HEROES) Act authorizes the secretary of education to forgive student loan debt, and whether the court’s major questions doctrine, which limits agency discretion where regulations have a “vast economic or political significance,” applies.
For more information, see NCSL’s prior blog and the Supreme Court webpage.