Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2012 | 2 a.m.
President Barack Obama unveiled a budget proposal Monday for fiscal 2013 that puts in black and white what we’ve been hearing from him for months: invest in America, and help pay for the investment — and reduce the debt — by making the rich “contribute their fair share.”
But Obama’s budget may have more traction on the campaign trail than in Congress. Time and time again over the past year, lawmakers have fought over investment proposals small and large, and Republicans have stopped Democrats from passing millionaires’ taxes and other tax-rate-balancing proposals. In turn, Democrats have put their foot down on Republicans’ proposals to tackle the country’s mounting debt by upending Medicare.
Nonetheless, many items in the 256-page budget could affect Nevadans. Here are 11, in no particular order, that could hit home — if they can pass Congress, of course.
Remember when every other month, Sen. Harry Reid was announcing a new loan guarantee to kick-start some massive renewable energy project in Nevada? Well, consider the start kicked. The stimulus programs that helped pay for Nevada’s solar growth were phased out at the end of fiscal 2011, and the president is not going to resurrect them. Instead, the administration is putting new resources into research and development, to push energy efficiency and affordability. But R&D isn’t really the Silver State’s strong suit — meaning for the short term at least, the so-called Saudi Arabia of solar energy will have to stand on its own.
As expected, the president’s budget upholds the recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future — which Yucca Mountain opponents welcomed as a sign that Washington, D.C., is looking at dumping nuclear waste in places other than Nevada.
Meanwhile, the budget puts $5.65 billion toward making sure “our nation’s legacy of nuclear wastes from the production of weapons during the Cold War are processed, secured, and safely disposed of in a timely manner.” The cleanup list includes Washington, South Carolina, Idaho, Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio and New Mexico, but not Nevada. The government may not have produced nuclear weapons in Nevada, but they certainly detonated them there. Yet the Nevada National Security Site, it seems, will have to wait for a cleanup.
The president announced on his swing through the West last month that he plans to make public land available for private investment in clean energy — welcome news in a state where over two-thirds of all land is controlled by the Bureau of Land Management. Obama’s budget calls for 11,000 megawatts of new solar, wind and geothermal power on government-controlled land by the end of 2013. To put that in perspective, one of Nevada’s best-known solar plants — SolarReserve’s Crescent Dunes project in Tonopah — will produce 110 megawatts, or 1 percent of what the president is expecting from the BLM’s new energy basin by the end of next year.
Don’t get a pension through work? The president wants to do something about that. In his fiscal 2013 budget, Obama proposes an automatic workplace pension system for employees of businesses that don’t offer retirement plans. As envisioned, it would be mandatory for employers to enroll their employees in a direct-deposit IRA account (employees who did not want to participate could opt out). The accounts are not being presented as an alternative to Social Security; the idea is to get more Americans saving for retirement.
The unemployment crisis has worn on for far longer than states like Nevada were prepared to deal with. Nevada depends on the federal government to cover unemployment benefits, creating a budget crisis that the Obama administration proposes tackling through tax cuts. For the next two years, the Obama administration plans on waiving the tax on employers that covers unemployment checks paid by states indebted to the federal government — the hope being that will encourage more job creation. In the meantime, the federal government continues to press indebted states like Nevada to make sure they are policing against improper payments.
Airports not flying so high
The Obama administration was ambitious in this year’s budget when it came to transportation, floating the idea of a six-year, half-trillion dollar transportation bill, $47 billion of which would be for high-speed rail. But one area where the president wants to cut back is at bigger airports, like McCarran International. The president is aiming to slice about a billion dollars from the $3.3 billion aside for guaranteed airport grants. But the government is going to make it easier for airports to recoup some of those lost resources — from the airline passengers. Under the president’s budget proposal, larger airports would be given more flexibility “to increase nonfederal passenger facility charges.”
The president wants to reduce the Defense Department’s budget by about a half-trillion dollars — money that his opponents charge will compromise the country and hurt industries that support the military. That may or may not be the case in Nevada: Defense Secretary Leon Panetta explained that these reductions are shifts in priorities: away from ground combat and toward the Air Force (meaning Nellis and other Air Force bases could grow).
But one program getting more attention in the president’s budget is a weapons and surveillance system that is a Nevada specialty: The budget puts $3.7 billion toward unmanned aerial systems such as Predator drones, many of which are flown out of Nevada’s Creech Air Force Base, and Reaper drones.
The nation’s health care system will move toward implementation of Obama’s health care law in fiscal 2013. Meanwhile, the president is proposing some money-saving tweaks, and many have to do with Medicare. After 2017, for instance, the president proposes increasing income-based premiums for recipients of Medicare Part B and Part D (prescription drugs) by about 15 percent, and deductibles for new enrollees by $25. But he’s also got a plan to make those drugs cheaper: The president wants to authorize the Federal Trade Commission to block companies from making “pay for delay” agreements, which will speed generic drugs to market.
Work hard, study hard
Those hoping for a slight increase in Pell Grants next academic year are out of luck: The president only guarantees they won’t drop. But Obama is proposing the American Opportunity Tax Credit, which gives working undergrads up to $10,000 per year in tax credits. If that is approved, it will let students put more of their hard-earned dollars toward paying for college.
Las Vegas got a shout-out from the White House in its fiscal 2013 budget for the Veterans Affairs hospital that could open before fiscal 2013 commences. The president used the example of the Las Vegas Valley’s VA hospital to illustrate why he was proposing $792 million to improve and build new VA facilities in fiscal 2013.
A penny saved ...
Is worth more than a penny made, for the federal government. It costs 2.4 cents to produce a one-cent piece, and 11.2 cents to produce a five-cent nickel. Sound ridiculous? The president thinks so. As part of his proposal to save money in the Treasury Department, he’s proposing “legislation to provide the Secretary flexibility to change the composition of coins to more cost-effective materials ... to improve the efficiency of the coin and currency-production efforts.” The budget doesn’t say what would replace the copper-plated zinc used in the penny or the copper-nickel alloy that goes into the nickel. But they predict it will save the country about $75 million. Lawmakers raised the issue, when metal prices skyrocketed. But no Congress has changed the law on penny-making since 1981.