This week, President Obama signed the Fiscal Year 2016 Omnibus Appropriations Act, which contains slightly more than $1.15 trillion to support a variety of government programs and services. While the spending package does contain funding to support the Federal Payment in Lieu of Taxes program as we have been advocating for, it does not include key policy riders to address several issues that RCRC has worked on throughout the year. The House adopted the FY 2016 Federal Omnibus spending package this morning in a 316-113 vote, followed by passage in the Senate with a 65-33 vote. Below please find some of the key components of interest to California's rural counties.
Federal Payment in Lieu of Taxes Program
The FY 16 Federal Omnibus spending package contains $452 million in spending authority for the Federal Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT). California receives approximately $40 million annually in Federal PILT to support a variety of local government programs and services, including police and fire departments, emergency medical services, and search and rescue operations. RCRC staff and our federal advocates worked throughout the year to secure this funding as part of the annual appropriations process. Earlier this year, RCRC staff initiated a multi-pronged advocacy and media strategy that included passage of 30 local county resolutions urging Congress to reauthorize and fully fund the Federal PILT program. These efforts advanced our federal advocacy messaging and helped secure funding for Federal PILT as part of the FY 16 spending package.
Federal Secure Rural Schools
The Federal Secure Rural Schools (SRS) program was not funded through the FY 16 Omnibus spending package. The Federal SRS program provides funding for forested counties and school districts to replace revenue lost from dwindling forest receipts due to the national decline in timber harvesting. RCRC staff and our federal advocates continue to advocate for a long-term reauthorization and will work to explore alternatives to the current payment structure and long-term funding model.
The FY 16 Federal Omnibus spending package does not include a policy rider to halt a tribal acknowledgment rule adopted earlier this year. While the final rule included improvements advocated by RCRC, it nevertheless lowers the standard for recognizing new Indian tribes, potentially increasing the number of tribes in California. Separate legislation to address the Carcieri v. Salazar U.S. Supreme Court decision that invalidated the Federal Fee-to-Trust land acquisition process for tribes recognized after 1934 recently passed the Senate Indian Affairs Committee and is awaiting consideration by the full Senate. S. 1879 was modified to address many concerns raised by RCRC, and we will seek additional amendments when the legislation is considered by the full Senate. Meanwhile the House Natural Resources Committee has conducted two hearings on draft legislation to reform the tribal acknowledgment process, transferring final decisions to Congress rather than the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Congress was unable to reach an agreement to reform how the United States Forest Service and the United States Department of the Interior fund wildfire prevention and suppression activities as part of the FY 16 Omnibus spending package. However, the final spending package does include increases in funding to support wildfire operations. Specifically, the Omnibus provides $4.2 billion in wildfire fighting and prevention programs, which is estimated to be roughly $670 million above FY 2015 funding levels. Additionally, the measure includes $545 million for hazardous fuels reduction and $360 million for forest health activities. While additional funding to cover this year’s budget shortfall is a necessary and welcome fix, RCRC will continue to push for a permanent solution to the funding dysfunction of wildfire disasters at the federal level.
Waters of the United States
Despite best efforts and support from Congressional leaders, the FY 16 Omnibus does not contain any policy riders to prevent the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the United States Army Corps of Engineers from implementing the highly controversial Federal Waters of the United States (WOTUS) regulations. While the WOTUS regulations are currently suspended pending review by various federal courts, RCRC staff and our federal advocates will continue to support advocacy efforts that prevent WOTUS implementation.
Health Insurance Cadillac Tax
The FY 16 Omnibus spending package includes a policy rider that postpones implementation of the ‘Cadillac Tax’ on certain health insurance plans established through The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The Cadillac Tax would assess a 40 percent tax on all high-priced employer health insurance plans in excess of specific funding thresholds, which is intended to drive down overall health insurance costs. The policy rider contained in the spending package will delay implementation of the Cadillac tax from 2018 to 2020.
Grazing Fees and Permits
The FY 16 Federal Omnibus spending package includes several provisions to ease the regulatory and fiscal burden on ranching operations. Those provisions include an extension of grazing permits on USDA Forest Service lands through 2016 and a $1.5 million increase for Range Management to continue working on the backlog of grazing permit applications. The package also omits a proposal by the Administration to levy $22.5 million in new grazing fees on Bureau of Land Management and USDA Forest Service Lands.