Two senators including Lee delay review of Flint bill

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — A couple of U.S. senators including Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah continue to delay review of a $220 million Flint-inspired bill, pushing a vote on the measure into next week.

Among Lee’s problems with the legislation are that it didn’t go through the Senate’s ordinary procedure, and the funds designated to pay for the legislation are repurposed from a stimulus appropriation, according to a Senate staffer familiar with the deliberations.

Lee is also concerned that the bill is federalizing what has traditionally been a local issue — the maintenance of public water infrastructure.

Separately, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, lifted his objection last week and won’t block the bill; however, other “holds” placed to stall the bill may still exist, according to Senate staffers.

The bipartisan legislation is sponsored by U.S. Sens. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, and Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, as well as Republican Sens. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, and Rob Portman of Ohio.

“It’s still a work in progress,” Peters told reporters at the Capitol on Thursday. “My understanding is we’re down to a few holds. Very, very few.”

Stabenow said Thursday she and Inhofe are aiming for a vote next week. She also noted the addition of Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia for a total of five Republican co-sponsors on the bill.

“We’re in good shape,” Stabenow told The Detroit News. “We’re moving along in the right direction, and I’m optimistic that things can get resolved.”

The measure includes $100 million for subsidized loans for water infrastructure improvements through the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund for any state with a federal emergency declaration due to a public health threat from lead or other contaminants in a public drinking water supply system. Flint is the only community that now fits the definition.

The state first would have to submit a report on how funding would be used to combat drinking-water contamination before any funds could be drawn. If unused after 18 months, the $100 million would revert to the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act Fund at the Environmental Protection Agency.

Another $70 million would help finance costs for up to $700 million in secured loans for water infrastructure across the nation through the WIFIA Fund.

About $50 million would be directed toward a lead exposure registry and three children’s health programs related to lead exposure.

The legislation also would require the EPA to alert the public of high lead levels in drinking water when a state agency fails to do so for more than 15 days. A nearly unanimous House this month approved a similar bill.

A bipartisan agreement reached in recent weeks would allow the stalled energy bill advance to a vote, with the Flint-related measure considered separately.

Senate Democrats this month blocked a vote to advance the energy bill over the issue. In negotiations, the disagreement with Republicans had been largely over how to pay for, or offset, the package’s cost.

The current bill would be funded by redirecting roughly $250 million designated for the Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing Program for loans issued to automakers after Oct. 1, 2020.

That program, created in 2007, helps auto and parts manufacturers retool plants to produce more fuel-efficient vehicles. Inhofe has called the fund a failure, noting it hasn’t been used in more than a year and has only issued five loans since 2008.

An analysis by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office found that the bill’s costs are ultimately paid for, although the vehicle manufacturing recision technically violates legislative rules related to deficit spending because the original appropriation fell under the federal stimulus program and was designated as emergency funds.

That means any senator could raise a budget point of order against the bill when it finally reaches the floor.

mburke@detroitnews.com

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