Spending Bill is a Lump of Coal for the Holidays
This week, I voted against the Fiscal Year 2006 Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Appropriations bill, because it delivers painful cuts that will hurt people in Maine in order to provide budget room to give tax cuts to the wealthiest in America.
If this sounds familiar to you, that is because it is. This measure failed to pass the House of Representatives four weeks ago due to strong bipartisan opposition by moderates of both parties. The new version made very modest changes from the earlier version of the bill in order in order to sway just enough votes to let it squeak through the House.
The House of Representatives defeated this flawed bill weeks ago because it was a bad deal for our health care providers, schools, and workers. In fact, it was the first time in ten years that the House of Representatives defeated the final version of an appropriations bill was defeated on the floor.
With this "new" version of the bill, Congressional leadership is using smoke and mirrors simply shuffling around scarce funds to make it look like more funding has been appropriated, when, in fact, this measure even has less funding than the bill we defeated.
Like the version rejected by the House on November 17, the revised version still slashes health, education and jobs programs by $1.6 billion below last year's level. In addition, the House Leadership is planning to add a government-wide across-the-board cut of 1 percent to a later piece of legislation - which will then cut health, education and jobs programs by an additional $1.4 billion.
This bill delivers the first cut to education funding in ten years. The funding level for schools to meet the requirements of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is nowhere near the $22.8 billion that Congress and the Administration promised when NCLB was enacted, and it is less than half the authorized level for Fiscal Year 2006. This not only hurts our students, it places a huge unfunded mandate on the state of Maine that we cannot afford. It is bad for budgets, and bad for kids.
The bill also hurts college students. For the fourth consecutive year, the maximum Pell grant is stalled at $4,050, even though education costs have risen 36 percent since 2001. This means fewer Maine kids will have the resources to go to college.
This legislation also cuts funding for Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) by $90 million below the Fiscal Year 2005 level. Trade Adjustment Assistance helps workers who have lost their jobs directly due to trade. It has helped almost 12,000 workers in Maine who have been hit by trade-related job loss since 1998.
These TAA cuts come despite the staggering number of American manufacturing jobs lost due to ever increasing foreign imports and shifts in production overseas, particularly to China. This means that next year, workers will lose their jobs due to our government's trade policies, and then fewer of them will be able to access the assistance that the government promised them to help get them back on their feet. That is wrong.
Furthermore, the conference report is freezing LIHEAP funding, even though a 44 percent increase in natural gas prices and a 24 percent increase in home heating oil prices are expected this winter. Too many low-income Mainers simply won't be able to afford escalating heating costs.
Although nearly 46 million Americans are without health insurance, there is no new funding for Community Health Centers in this legislation. The bill also eliminates the Healthy Communities Access Program, a program targeted at meeting the needs of the uninsured.
All of these cuts that hurt students, working people, and those who need health care are being made to make budget room for a tax cut bill that delivers about half of its benefit to people making more than one million dollars per year.
It is a shame that during the holiday season, Congress is passing such a big lump of coal. This bill represents the wrong priorities for Maine and burdens us with too many unfunded mandates. Congress can do better. Congress should do better.