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Senate passes government-funding bills, ahead of shutdown deadline

Photo Credit: W. Scott McGill/Adobe Stock

The Senate passed two bipartisan, bicameral spending bills Thursday to fund federal government operations through 2020. The bills now head to President Trump’s desk for signature.

“Today I voted to avert another painful government shutdown like the one that hurt thousands of Virginia families earlier this year, during President Trump’s 35-day government shutdown,” Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., said. “Every year I advocate for much-needed resources to strengthen communities across Virginia and this year is no exception. In this bill, we finally secured health care and pension benefits that our miners have rightfully earned, and successfully pushed for a well-deserved pay raise for our federal workforce and men and women in uniform. This bill also forces the Department of Justice to finally adhere to a firm deadline on the full implementation of the Ashanti Alert system, just to name a few wins for Virginia. With so much critical funding at stake for the Commonwealth, I urge the President to swiftly sign these bills into law.”

“I’m proud many of our efforts to improve the lives of Virginians were included in our final spending package,” Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said. “This bipartisan legislation includes my bill to raise the tobacco age to 21 and a bill I cosponsored to protect the health and pension benefits of retired miners. It also includes significant funding I supported to boost resiliency at military installations at risk from threats like climate change, strengthen rural infrastructure, and support career and technical education. I’m thrilled our colleagues worked together to fund these crucial priorities.”

Among the priorities from Warner and Kaine included in the bills:

Election Security: Includes $435 million for a new round of election security grants ahead of the 2020 elections. The manager’s package included critical language specifying that the grants be used for the purchase of election equipment that uses paper ballots, the conduct of post-election audits, cybersecurity training of election officials, and other cyber-security related improvements.

Veterans: Provides $91.9 billion in funding for the VA, an increase of $5.4 billion above FY19. The bill would increase funding to several Veteran Health Administration priority areas, including $1.5 billion for electronic health record modernization, $9.4 billion to increase mental health services for veterans, and $221.7 million for suicide prevention programs. It includes $1.9 billion for homelessness programs such as $380 million for the Supportive Services for Veterans and Families program and $408.3 million for the Housing and Urban Development-VA Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) Program, which provides assistance to homeless veterans.

Gold Star Families: This legislation corrects one of the many unintended consequences of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 – legislation forced through by the GOP that, among other things, treats military and VA survivor benefits as trusts or estates, subjecting the benefits of many military families to a much higher tax rate. The Senators introduced legislation earlier this year to make sure surviving families aren’t unfairly penalized, and pay back those families that had to incur this unjust tax hike.

Shipbuilding: The bill provides over $13 billion in VA Shipbuilding priorities such as: Ford-class aircraft carrier construction ($2.27 billion), aircraft carrier overhaul ($650 million), and Virginia-class ($8.32 billion) and Columbia-class ($1.82 billion) submarine construction. The bill also provides over $13 billion for ship repairs.

Federal Employee & Military Pay Raise: Provides a 3.1 percent pay raise for federal civilian employees and our military. Sens. Warner and Kaine successfully pushed to override President Trump’s request for a punitive, across-the-board pay freeze for the federal workforce.

Animal Protection: The bill provides $1 million to ensure stronger enforcement of the Horse Protection Act to stop the cruel practice of horse soring, a $295,000 increase above FY 19. Sen. Warner introduced and Sen. Kaine cosponsored the bipartisan PAST Act to end horse soring, and both Warner and Kaine introduced legislation to protect domestic violence victims and their pets.

Chesapeake Bay Program: Includes $85 million for the Chesapeake Bay Program, an increase of $12 million over fiscal year 2019. The Chesapeake Bay Program coordinates Chesapeake Bay watershed restoration and protection efforts, and the majority of its funds are passed through to the states and local communities for on-the-ground restoration. The Senators wrote to congressional appropriators urging them to include significant increased funding for the Chesapeake Bay Program in the final spending bill. The bill also includes $3 million for the Chesapeake Bay Gateways and Watertrails Network, an increase of $1 million over FY 2019. The Senators introduced legislation to reauthorize the highly successful Chesapeake Bay Gateways and Watertrails program run by the National Park Service.

HBCU & MSIs: Provides $93 million in critical funding to strengthen Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) and Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs). This bill would provide money for the five HBCUs in Virginia to make campus improvements and strengthen financial management, academic resources and endowment-building capacity. Earlier this month, Sens. Warner and Kaine successfully pushed to get the FUTURE Act signed into law to restore  $255 million in federal funding for these critical institutions.

Distance Learning and Telemedicine Grants: Includes $50 million for Distance Learning and Telemedicine Grants. In November 2019, Virginia received $1.1 million through this program. The funding was awarded to the Appalachian Agency for Senior Citizens, the University of Virginia (UVA), George Mason University, and the Community Memorial Hospital. The Community Memorial Hospital, for example, will use the funds to provide medical services via interactive video conferencing equipment to four sites in Mecklenburg County and will benefit approximately 11,000 residents. 

Rural Broadband Grants: Includes $550 million for the ReConnect Pilot Program rural broadband grants, a program established by USDA last year to expand broadband infrastructure and service in rural communities. In the first round of ReConnect Pilot Program investments in 2019, USDA invested nearly 3.8 million in high-speed broadband infrastructure that will create or improve rural e-Connectivity for more than 1,250 rural households, two volunteer fire departments, and four educational facilities in Mecklenburg County.

Tobacco 21: Includes the Tobacco-Free Youth Act introduced by Sen. Kaine and supported by Sen. Warner that would raise the nationwide minimum age to buy all tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, from 18 to 21. Additionally, the bill provides incentives to states to continue inspections and reporting to ensure retailers do not sell tobacco products to those under 21.

Gun Violence Research: Includes $25 million for the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the National Institute for Health (NIH) to support firearm injury and mortality prevention research for the first time in 20 years, with the potential to identify interventions to help save lives. The Senators introduced legislation earlier this year to fund firearms safety and gun violence prevention research at the CDC.

Miners’ Benefits: The Senators successfully pushed to include a fix for miners’ health care and pensions, which is headed for insolvency due to coal company bankruptcies. This bill will secure the pensions of 92,000 coal miners and protect healthcare benefits for 13,000 miners across the country – that includes hundreds of retirees in Southwest Virginia who were affected by the recent Westmoreland Coal bankruptcy. The bill also extends funding for the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund until the end of 2020 by extending the tax on mining companies that helps fund the program.

Mine Safety and Health Administration (MHSA): Provides $17.18 million for MSHA, which will work to prevent death, illness, and injury from mining and promote safe and healthy workplaces for miners in Virginia. There are approximately 3,000 coal miners employed in Virginia.

Appalachian Regional Commission: Includes $175 million for the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), an increase of $10 million over FY 2019. Last fiscal year, ARC supported 32 projects in Virginia totaling $8.2 million in federal investment. This investment has been matched by nearly $20.5 million in state, local, and private investments. This funding helped create and retain 950 jobs in the region last year.

Richmond International Airport Reimbursement: The Senators successfully pushed for the inclusion of $40 million in federal funds to help reimburse airports that purchased security screening equipment following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Richmond International Airport spent almost $4 million in 2005 to protect passenger safety and was promised federal reimbursement, which it has yet to fully receive. The airport is expected to receive $734,314 from this tranche of funds, bringing total reimbursement to date to $2,386,522, more than halfway to the $4 million the airport was owed.

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