Leahy: Sharper Focus On America’s Middle Class Needed In The New Year

. . . Congress Clears Budget Bill, Ending The Sequester Straightjacket And Lifting Caps To Fund Key Priorities

[Late Friday morning, the U.S. Senate approved legislation to fund the federal government through fiscal year 2016 and extend tax credits for millions of low- and middle-income class families.  The final budget bill, which Leahy voted for and is expected to be signed by the President TODAY, includes a wide variety of funding investments that reflect Senator Patrick Leahy’s priorities for Vermont.  Leahy holds the most seniority on the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, which handled the Senate’s work in writing the bill.]

“Hardworking Americans deserve more than living paycheck to paycheck, worrying about having to choose between paying an electric bill or putting healthy food on the table.  This appropriations law ends a year of continuing budget uncertainty and extends tax credits for millions of hardworking families.  We have kept out harmful riders that would have undermined everything from Wall Street reform to clean air and water laws.  There are many steps forward in this bill for Vermonters and all Americans, but we need stronger steps.  We need to carry this into the new year and strengthen it, to help lift the middle class and to protect the most vulnerable among us.

“We need much more progress in creating well-paying jobs in rural areas like Vermont, not just in the nation’s urban centers.  We need to do more to protect Social Security and Medicare and other programs in the safety net.  We need to do more to make college affordable for students and families. 

“This bill will let Congress begin the new year with focusing on America’s middle class, taking stronger steps to help working families.  By standing together, Senate Democrats have made it possible to cancel the harmful sequester and to lift caps to make investments possible that will make a difference in communities across Vermont – from cleanup efforts on Lake Champlain, to ramping up our fight against opioid addiction, to equipping our police officers with lifesaving bulletproof vests.”

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At-A-Glance Summary
Of Several Key Vermont-Related Provisions
In The Final Fiscal Year 2016 Budget Bill
(Cleared By Congress On Friday, Dec. 18, 2015) 

Lake Champlain – The Omnibus Appropriations Bill includes funding to continue efforts to address the water quality and phosphorous levels in Lake Champlain, a longstanding Vermont priority for Senator Leahy.  It includes $4.4 million in funds for the EPA’s Lake Champlain Geographic Program, which will be crucial as Vermont and the EPA take on ambitious new work to improve water quality in the region.  The highly successful sea lamprey control program was also funded at Leahy’s request, and the $3.45 million provided will also support other ecosystem restoration work.

Anti-Heroin Task Force – Senator Leahy was instrumental in establishing this program to combat the growing scourge of opioid addiction in communities across Vermont and the nation, holding several Senate Judiciary Committee hearings, including one in Rutland. The Vermont Drug Task Force received $1 million from the first round of grants for this program in September 2015, resulting in the addition of five troopers to focus on heroin trafficking.  The program will receive $7 million in funding in FY16.

Substance Abuse Treatment – The final spending bill includes $25 million – an increase of $13 million over FY15 levels -- for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration’s grant program, to expand opioid and heroin abuse treatment programs.  This fall, Vermont’s Department of Health received $1 million from the first round of federal funding from this program.

Crime Victims Fund – The Crime Victims Fund will receive its highest level of funding for services since its creation in 1984, increasing the funding available to victims by roughly $300 million, bringing the total to $2.6 billion.  These funds provide direct aid to crime victims, helping with emergency shelter, transportation and legal assistance, as well as compensation for expenses such as hospital bills, burial costs and other restitution.  The fund is financed by criminal fines and penalties, not taxpayer dollars.  Leahy, a former prosecutor, has long been an effective champion for victims and for the help offered through the Crime Victims Fund.

Bulletproof Vests – The Bulletproof Vest Partnership Grant program, a program originally authored by Leahy in 1997, is funded at $22.5 million.  In Vermont more than $980,000 in grant money has helped in buying 4392 vests for local and state law enforcement officers since the program began.  

College Affordability – The final spending bill includes additional resources to help students and families afford the cost of college.  The bill includes $900 million for TRIO -- $60 million more than last year -- which helps low-income and first-generation college students prepare for and succeed in college.  The bill also includes strong funding for Pell Grants, and the maximum award under the program is expected to rise to $5915.   

Research Funding – The bill increases funding for the work of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) by more than $2 billion, which is the largest increase for NIH since 2003. These funds will enhance funding for Alzheimer’s Disease research and for precision medicine, among others initiatives.  The NIH supports vital breakthrough research at institutions in Vermont and across the country.

Head Start and Early Childhood Education –The bill offers a total of $9.2 billion for Head Start, increasing funding by $570 million from last year.  This level will restore funding for more than 900,000 children nationwide and increase Early Head Start programming for children from birth to age three.  The bill also includes $250 million for Preschool Development Grants, which will support high-quality early education for more than 100,000 at-risk children across the country.

Northern Border Regional Commission – The Northern Border Regional Commission, a program that provides development funding for economically distressed Northern Border counties in Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine and New York, received a $2.5 million increase, growing the program by 80 percent in three years to $7.5 million in funding.  The program awarded $1.2 million in funding to support projects in Vermont in 2015 and was created through Leahy’s efforts in the 2008 Farm Bill.

Land And Water Conservation Fund – For the past two years, Leahy has led the charge for the full reauthorization and funding of the nation’s most successful conservation program.  Allowed to expire in September for the first time in its 50-year, bipartisan history, this bill rescues the program and includes a three-year reauthorization of the Fund.  In Vermont more than $123 million in LWCF grants have supported hundreds of local parks and conservation projects over the last five decades. 

Forest Legacy Projects – Forest Legacy projects are funded at $55.9 million.  In Vermont more than 80,000 acres are permanently conserved through more than $22.9 million in Forest Legacy funds used in Vermont over the 25 years of this program, which Leahy authored and enacted in an earlier Farm Bill, modeling the program on Vermont’s needs and experience.  This year’s funding includes a significant conservation project in central Vermont.

Affordable Housing – Senator Leahy led efforts to restore funding for the HOME program (which had been cut by 90 percent in the earlier Senate committee mark) to $950 million in the final bill -- a $50 million increase over last year’s levels.  The HOME program is the only federal block grant program to state and local governments designed exclusively to produce affordable housing for low-income families. The omnibus bill includes continued funding for the Community Development Block Grant program, and for Public Housing programs.

Rural Development – The U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development programs will receive an increase of $300 million, including more resources for Community Facilities and Water and Waste Disposal grants assisting rural communities.

The “DARK” Act – The omnibus rejected efforts by the food industry to block Vermont’s Act 120, set to go into effect in July, ensuring that states can continue efforts to support consumers’ right to know what is in their food.

School Nutrition – The omnibus provides $30 million for school equipment grants to help schools update outdated equipment to improve school nutrition and food safety. 

Tax Credit Extensions – The bill makes permanent several important tax provisions used by thousands of Vermonters, including the Child Tax Credit, the American Opportunity Tax Credit, the Earned Income Tax Credit, conservation easement, charitable food donations by businesses and farmers, charitable IRA rollover, and permanently extends the research and development credit and section 179 business development tax credit for small businesses. The New Markets Tax Credit, Low Income Housing Tax Credit, and the Work Opportunity Tax Credit were extended through 2019. 

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