Wednesday, March 5, 2014 | 2 a.m.
In a divided Congress, President Barack Obama’s proposed $3.9 trillion budget is all but guaranteed to be greatly revised before fiscal 2015 rolls around in October.
Yet as a policy document, there are several areas of the budget to which Nevadans might want to turn their attention because they affect funding and authorization for programs and communities with an important foothold in the state.
Depending on your industry, there may be several parts of the budget we’ve skipped that hold a personal interest. We selected these 11 items for their potential to pack a special punch in the Silver State.
In his budget proposal, Obama reiterates a stand on Yucca Mountain that comes as reassurance to anti-dumpsite Nevadans, especially after a year in which the federal courts sided with those who want to keep the development going.
The budget puts $79 million toward research and development in the areas of transportation, storage, disposal and consent-based siting of a nuclear waste repository “after determining that Yucca Mountain was not a workable solution for disposing of the nation’s spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste.”
Rural renewable energy
Obama's budget dedicates $5 billion in loans to fund rural electric cooperatives that want to transition to clean energy, an area in which Nevada’s power companies big and small have made nation-leading strides. The money is intended to go toward electricity generation, transmission and distribution. The budget also seeks to double the current funding for grants to expand high-speed broadband, with the intent to support another 16 needy rural communities getting online. No communities have been identified.
The budget proposal seeks changes in the military pay and compensation structure to “slow the growth in compensation and benefit costs in a responsible way.” To that end, spending in many areas would go down slightly.
The budget would include a 1 percent increase in basic pay and a 1.5 percent increase in the basic allowance for housing in 2015. That is slightly less of an increase than active-duty members of the military had been used to seeing in recent years. There would also be a 3.4 percent increase in the subsistence allowance and about $1 billion less in commissary subsidies.
The Defense Department portion of the budget also cites the president’s plans to reform the military’s main health care program. The changes would eliminate some health plan options, which would consolidate services but could raise costs for recipients.
Veterans’ claims backlog
Fixing the backlog on veterans' claims, which reached record-setting wait times in Nevada last year, has been one of the VA’s chief priorities. Obama’s budget takes special note of the need to eradicate the backlog as well, proposing about $140 million for enhancing the Veterans Claims Intake program, as well as just more than $170 million for the Veterans Benefit Management System, which is supposed to make the system nearly paperless and help streamline processing.
The other side of immigration
Whether or not an immigration bill ever gets out of Congress, the president plans to expand his enforcement efforts, with an extra 2,000 new Border Patrol agents, funded through increased user fees. There’s also an additional $124 million in the budget for expanding the reach of E-Verify, the government’s preferred worker-verification system.
In one area, however, the president is pulling back. The budget cuts the mandate for detention facility beds from 34,000 to 30,500. That may not seem like much — and a cut may seem like a recipe for poorer detention conditions — the scale-back may actually lessen the incentive to keep those beds filled and encourage alternate solutions that don’t keep immigrants without authorization to be in the country away from their families and in lockup for as long.
Wildfire mitigation and suppression have been discussed for months in Washington, D.C., and the budget proposal makes clear that Obama is ready to embrace a new strategy for fighting the forest and brush fires that are threatening communities and species, such as the greater sage grouse in Nevada.
The change wouldn't come in the amount of money to fight fires but in how it's distributed. States would be allowed to draw from an account dedicated to disasters when they run out of allocated funding to fight fires.
It’s not clear how much of the new funding proposed for Housing Choice Vouchers (just shy of $1 billion) or Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing ($75 million for 10,000 more vets) will trickle down to Nevada. But the programs are widely utilized in the state.
One of the most pervasive problems with the unbalanced immigration system is that the courts tasked with adjudicating deportation and detention cases are overwhelmed and overloaded. The president’s budget proposes creation of 35 new immigration judgeships with the appropriate levels of staffing in order to tackle the backlog in cases.
This week, Congress will begin to consider the president’s proposals to raise the minimum wage to $10.10. In the budget, the president rounds out that idea with a few others to assist workers, including a program to ensure that people working overtime are adequately compensated, and a new $5 million fund to encourage states considering adopting paid leave programs to move ahead with them.
The Obama budget proposes imposing royalties on hard-rock mining, something that won’t likely sit well with one of Nevada’s biggest industries or the state's congressional delegation. This isn’t the first time Obama has proposed this: Every year, he proposes royalties, and every year, they fall away before a final budget deal is sealed.
End of the penny?
It’s not the first time someone has proposed curtailing production of the copper coin that costs more to make than it is worth on the market. But Obama’s budget hints that it may be time to end that — and another — time-honored pecuniary traditions.
“Treasury is undertaking a comprehensive review of U.S. currency … (that) will result in the development of alternative options for the penny and the nickel.”
Get ready to round up to the nearest dollar.