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Conference Report on H.R. 2361, Department of the Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2006

Location: Washington DC



Mr. UDALL of Colorado. Mr. Speaker, I will vote for this conference report--but only because it includes an essential immediate increase in funding for veterans health care.

This has been a long time coming. Last September, many of us sought to provide a $2.5 billion increase over the Bush Administration's budget for veterans' health care. Earlier this year, Members on our side of the aisle made an unsuccessful effort to add $1.2 billion for veterans' health care to the emergency supplemental appropriations for military activities in Afghanistan and Iraq. And over the last month, the Republican leadership led successful efforts to block consideration of amendments to add the needed funds for VA health care.

Things finally changed when the Bush Administration finally acknowledged a $1 billion shortfall in veterans' health care for FY 2005, which had been well known since spring. When that happened, the Senate added $1.5 billion in supplemental funding to this bill because it was the most convenient legislative vehicle--and the conferees wisely agreed to retain it in the conference report.

This additional $1.5 billion is essential if we are to make any claim to meeting our moral obligation to America's veterans and returning soldiers. Because of its inclusion, I will vote for the conference report, even though the rest of the conference report does not deserve to pass.

Except for the veterans' health funding, this conference report falls short across the board.

It once again fails to provide the authorized funding for the payments-in-lieu-of-taxes program, shortchanging the counties and other local governments in Colorado and across the country for whom these ``PILT'' payments are so important.

It does not provide enough funds to enable the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, or the Forest Service to properly manage the federal lands for which they are responsible.

And it inadequately funds many other agencies as well, particularly the Environmental Protection Agency, which will be cut by about 3 percent from this fiscal year. I am particularly concerned about deep cuts to EPA's state grants (down nearly $400 million from fiscal 2005), which support environmental protection programs through grants to State, local and tribal governments, and a $24 million shortfall for EPA science and technology research.

Of course, Colorado will benefit from funding earmarked for projects in several parts of the state. But the needs of many communities will go unmet, and opportunities to acquire high-priority lands such as those in the Beaver Brook watershed in Clear Creek County will be missed.

Finally, the bill includes extensive legislative provisions authorizing the Forest Service to sell, lease, exchange, or otherwise convey lands that the Forest Service identifies as ``administrative sites''--including forest headquarters, ranger stations, research stations, or laboratories, among many other kinds of sites.

Mr. Speaker, this part of the conference report originated in the Senate. Inclusion of such legislative provisions in a general appropriation bill is contrary to the House rules, because it properly should be handled by the authorizing committee--the Committee on Resources--in an orderly fashion that allows for hearings and the consideration of amendments.

It would have been far better for the House conferees to have rejected it and enabled our committee to consider it in that fashion. However, I want to express my appreciation for the fact that the conferees did make very important changes in the Senate-passed language.

In particular, I am glad that they included an explicit requirement for the Forest Service to consult with affected local governments and to provide public notice regarding their plans for disposing of properties covered by this part of the conference report. And I think that excluding visitor centers and potential inholdings as well as lands providing access to other lands or waters were valuable changes, as was the requirement that the Forest Service provide advance notice to Congress of planned disposals and the reaffirmation that environmental analysis of proposed disposals include consideration of the ``no action'' alternative as required by NEPA.

While this legislation will remain in effect only through fiscal 2008, the statement of managers clearly signals an expectation that Congress will be asked to renew it or perhaps even make it permanent. If that should occur, I will do all I can to make sure that the Resources Committee is responsible for considering such legislation and that it is not accomplished by inclusion of legislation in an appropriations measure.

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