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Senate won’t touch blight aid to pay for highway bill

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — Senate Republican leadership on Friday unveiled a substitute version of the long-term highway bill that wouldn’t deprive Detroit and other cities of money to continue fighting neighborhood blight.

“It removes provisions that would have terminated the $1.7 billion Hardest Hit Fund mortgage program,” Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, said Friday morning on the Senate floor.

“Several senators on both sides of the aisle, and in particular Senator (Rob) Portman on our side of the aisle who has been a real champion on this issue, expressed their opposition to its termination. So we have reduced spending levels in the bill to accommodate this change, while ensuring the bill remains fully paid for three years.”

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, had held up a procedural vote on the transportation legislation late Thursday until McConnell promised to strike the Hardest Hit Funds originally included to offset a portion of the bill’s cost, she said.

U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, took to the floor to applaud the compromise — “something that happens too little here in Washington,” he said.

Peters highlighted that the fund — originally created for mortgage aid to help homeowners avoid foreclosure — has helped demolish thousands of vacant buildings across Michigan and assisted more than 25,000 property owners in the state preserve “their piece of the American dream — their family home.”

“I was prepared to oppose the legislation that we are considering today because I believe these changes would do damage to the economic recovery in my state,” Peters said in a floor speech.

Thanks to the work of Stabenow “and the cooperation of the Majority Leader, we were able to find a way forward that avoids disruption to this important program and avoids devastating economic outcomes in cities across my state,” he added.

Gov. Rick Snyder also got involved Thursday to lobby Republican leaders on the Hardest Hit funds. Snyder was in Washington for a meeting of the National Governors Association’s Council of Governors.

“I’m not going to get into whom talked to whom, but I’m glad to say our team rallied and worked with a lot of other good people, and we addressed the blight question,” Snyder said Friday, following a state trooper graduation ceremony in Lansing.

As of March 31, Michigan had spent $43 million out of a total $175 million in Hardest Hit funds committed to demolish about 3,220 homes. Overall, the state has dispersed more than $240.8 million in Hardest Hit money, according to U.S. Treasury figures.

Mayor Mike Duggan of Detroit, which has received $107 million in the funds, stressed how the program has allowed for demolition of vacant or unsalvagable homes, making room for new families to move in and repair other properties.

“The loss of this program would have been devastating to Detroit's neighborhoods,” he said in a statement.

The Senate adjourned Friday afternoon, planning to reconvene Sunday for potential weekend votes.

Congress faces a July 31 deadline when authorization for spending on federal highway projects expires. The House last week passed a six-month extension to last into December.

mburke@detroitnews.com

(202) 662-8736

Detroit News Staff Writer Chad Livengood contributed

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