Federal budget bill good for CT defense, health insurance industries

Washington –  The federal government’s proposed $1.1 trillion budget deal will please Connecticut health insurers, defense contractors and early childhood education advocates; but disappoint those seeking more federal heating aid and country-of-origin labeling on beef and pork.

The omnibus spending bill, a product of tense negotiations between Republican and Democratic leaders, would fund the federal government through Sept. 30 of next year.

But members of both parties found things they did not like in the 2009-page bill the House and Senate will vote on later this week.

“While the spending levels are increased over current levels, this bill still does not adequately fund the programs within the jurisdiction of the Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies subcommittee,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, the top Democrat on that panel. “I worked hard to make sure that these increases happened, but I remain disappointed that the subcommittee received less than its fair share…”

DeLauro also condemned the spending bill’s repeal of a mandatory country-of-origin labeling on beef and pork that will end a long-standing dispute with Canada and Mexico.

“The American people should know where their meat comes from,” she said.

The World Trade Organization had ruled in favor of the U.S. neighbors, who were poised to impose $1 billion in tariffs on a wide range of American products, including wine and orange juice, unless the labeling requirement was dropped.

DeLauro had worked to get the country-of-origin language in a farm bill, calling it “a hard-won victory for U.S. consumers.”

Environmentalists give the omnibus bill a mixed review.

It will lift the 40-year ban on crude oil exports, something Republicans insisted upon. In exchange, Democrats secured the extension of tax breaks for wind and solar energy producers for five years.

The spending bill also contains elements of the controversial Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act,  known as CISA, which would allow private tech companies to share cybersecurity threat data with the Department of Homeland Security and potentially the FBI and NSA.

The aim of this legislation is to stop the growing threat of corporate data breaches. But the ACLU and other civil liberties groups say that CISA would give the federal government backdoor access to private citizen data without a warrant.

Democrats were able to fend off several policy riders sought by the GOP, including a provision that would tighten restrictions on Syrian and Iraqi refugees that was supported by Reps. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, and Jim Himes, D-4th District, but rejected by most House Democrats.

Instead, the omnibus bill contains a provision that would scrutinize travelers more carefully from 38 countries, including most of Europe, where travelers don’t need visas to visit the United States. Those who had visited Iraq or Syria in the past five years would not be eligible for a visa waiver.

Connecticut’s health insurers, and perhaps some of their policyholders, will benefit from a one-year elimination of the Affordable Care Act’s  sales tax on health insurance. Insurers passed that on to policyholders in the form of higher premiums.

“The health insurance tax drives up the cost of coverage for millions of Americans,” said Clare Krusing, spokeswoman for America’s Health Insurance Plans. “Repealing or suspending the tax would be a victory for seniors, small business owners, and middle-class consumers.”

AHIP estimates suspension of the tax could cut Medicare Advantage premiums by $350 a year and individual and group policies by more than $200.

The omnibus also delayed, until 2020, the ACA’s tax on high-cost, high-coverage health care policies.

Known as the “Cadillac tax,”  a 40 percent levy would be placed on health plans whose value is more than $10,200 for individual coverage and $27,500 for family coverage. Only money spent in excess of the caps would be taxed.

Courtney, a leader in the effort to end the tax, said he will continue his push to have it eliminated.

More money for Pentagon, but not heating assistance

The omnibus bill increases the Pentagon’s budget by more than $30 billion, allowing the Pentagon to increase the purchase of F-35s for a total of 68 Joint Strike Fighters – 11 for the Marine Corps, three additional planes for the Air Force and  two more for the Navy. The F-35’s engines are made by Pratt & Whitney.

The bill also boosts the Navy’s shipbuilding budget by $2.1 billion, keeping the construction of two more Virginia-class submarines at Electric Boat on track.

The bill also substantially boosts the federal budget for Head Start, which will allow Connecticut preschoolers to enroll  in the program for more hours.

But the omnibus freezes the amount of federal funds for the Low-Income Heating Assistance Program, meaning Connecticut isn’t likely to receive an increase.

And the bill also keeps in place the so-called Dickey amendment for its 20th year. That measure has prevented the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from studying the effects of gun violence.

Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D -5th District, and other members of the all-Democratic House Gun Violence Prevention Task Force, said they are outraged.

“Since the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School three years ago, we have lost over 90,000 Americans to gun violence,” Esty said. “This is a man-made crisis that needs to be treated as the public health epidemic it has become.”

Esty said she would try to have the Dickey amendment stripped from the omnibus, but the spending bill is a product of tough bipartisan negotiations, and it would be difficult to revise it.

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