CHN: FY16 Omnibus Appropriations Bill Signed Into Law; Important Gains for Low-Income People Included, but Areas of Concern Remain

Congress wrapped up the FY16 appropriations season on Friday when the Senate passed (65-33) massive legislation that combined the FY16 omnibus spending bill passed by the House (316-113) earlier that day and a large tax cut package the House passed on Thursday (for more on the tax package, see the related article in this Human Needs Report). President Obama signed both measures into law on Friday, ensuring all government agencies will be funded through September 2016. Both chambers of Congress left town Friday afternoon for the holiday recess.
There is important good news for low-income people in the $1.15 trillion FY 2016 omnibus appropriations law. It demonstrates the importance of the legislation to increase spending beyond the harsh sequestration caps, enacted by Congress and signed by the President on November 2. While the nation needs greater investments than the increase allows, the omnibus makes progress. Head Start increases by $570 million over the FY 2015 level. Child care funding rises by $326 million; it would have been flat-funded in the initial House bill, despite the fact that a lot of ground has been lost in providing affordable child care, with 300,000 fewer children served since 2006. The omnibus increase does not go far enough, but it is a step forward. Job training funding increases modestly, and there is funding for a new $90 million apprenticeship program. Federal support for low-income K-12 school districts will rise by $500 million over FY15 levels, to $14.9 billion. The original House bill did not include any increase. Special education funding increases 3.6 percent, to $11.9 billion. Meals for seniors increase by $20 million. Combined funding for substance abuse and mental health programs rise by 4.6 percent over last year; most of these programs had been cut substantially since FY 2010. Funds for refugee assistance increase by more than 7 percent over FY 2015. The Community Services Block Grant increases to $715 million, up 6 percent.

These are some examples of programs of particular importance to low-income people. Funding remains tight, and other important programs, notably subsidized housing assistance, badly need increased resources. But advocates were certain that many more programs would have lost ground without the relief provided by lifting the sequester caps.

Further, advocates were very pleased that many harmful policy riders were rejected in the omnibus legislation. Because of the work of advocates, champions in Congress and the Obama Administration, refugees from Syria and Iraq will not be barred from entering the U.S. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau remains a strong and independent agency, protecting people from unscrupulous lenders charging appalling interest rates. Protections will remain for people needing retirement advice, and for workers seeking collective bargaining agreements with joint employers. Constraints on fair housing protections were rejected. Here too were victories for low- and moderate-income people.

There was, however, concern among advocates over certain parts of the omnibus. Of particular concern, a provision which prevents subsidizing health insurance companies taking losses in “risk corridors” threatens the significant successes of the Affordable Care Act. Some of the revenues originally intended to fund the health care law were delayed for two years. One of the revenue sources, a tax on higher-cost health insurance plans, was strongly opposed by labor. Over time, assuming opposition to this source continues, other revenues will be needed.

Assistance for refugees will receive an increase of nearly $115 million over last year’s funding, bringing its total to $1.67 billion. However, with recent increases in children fleeing violence in Central America as well as the new refugees from Syria and Iraq, advocates will be carefully monitoring whether resources are adequate to serve those seeking asylum.

Providing even more funds than the Pentagon has asked for is another area of concern for low-income advocates. An additional $1.3 billion is provided in the omnibus for 11 F-35 fighter planes beyond the Pentagon request, despite multiple problems with the aircraft.

For more information on what’s in the omnibus and what’s not, see these summaries from House Democrats, House Republicans, Senate Democrats and Senate Republicans, or the bill text.              

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