THIS WEEK IN CONGRESS - October 29, 2021

Oct 31, 2021

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Build Back Better helps Marianas 

After weeks of negotiation between moderate and progressive Democrats, legislative language for President Biden’s Build Back Better Act was released on Thursday. H.R. 5376 is rich in help for the people of the Northern Mariana Islands. It includes more funding and a permanently lower local match for Medicaid, extension of the Child Tax Credit, and pre-Kindergarten education and child care for working parents. As well, my College Access Act providing in-state tuition nationwide for Marianas students, and my Employment Services and Job Parity Act and Job Corps Nationwide Act are all part of the legislation. Although the politics of enactment remain tricky, agreement seems in reach. The Marianas will be eligible for dozens of programs to help us continue to build back better. We highlight a few for you:

  • $70M for Medicaid, 17% local match. We raised Marianas Medicaid funding to $60 million in US Public Law 116-94 two years ago and with the inflation adjustment, funding for FY22 is set at $64 million. But Section 30731 of the Build Back Better Act raises that even more, to $70 million. Medicaid provides health insurance for 38,000 individuals in the Marianas. The Build Back Better Act also makes permanent the current 83 percent federal/17 percent local shares for Medicaid, a ratio better than for any state in the nation.
  • $1B per Covenant CIP agreementSection 70901 of the Build Back Better Act appropriates $1 billion for critical infrastructure in the insular areas (the Marianas, America Samoa, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands). At my suggestion the money will be distributed in the same manner as Covenant CIP funds. For the current fiscal year, the Office of Insular Affairs has projected the Marianas will receive 33 percent of Covenant funding. Section 110004 also adds another $6.4 million per year for Marianas highways.
  • In-state tuition for Marianas college students. Bachelor’s degree students from the Marianas would be eligible for up to $15,000 per year to make up the difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition at public colleges nationwide. I first introduced my College Access Act in 2011 and it is now included in Section 20027 of the Build Back Better Act, expanded to include American Samoa, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Freely Associated States. In addition, Section 20021 increases the annual Pell grant for low-income students by $550 per year.
  • Child Tax Credit extended. Families in the Marianas and nationwide will continue to receive the enhanced Child Tax Credit we included in the American Rescue Plan through 2022. The CTC is $3,000 per child and $3,600 for children under age six. The credit is fully refundable, so even if the credit exceeds a family’s tax liability, they receive the full amount. Section 137102 of the Build Back Better Act also includes the cover-over provision and administrative expenses for advance payment that I was able to include in the American Rescue Plan, so the program costs the Commonwealth government nothing.
  • Child care and universal preschool. The Marianas will share $1 billion with Puerto Rico, American Samoa, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands to provide a high-quality, free, pre-Kindergarten program for young learners. Licensed child care providers, Head Start, or the Marianas Public School System could all participate in the mixed delivery model Section 23002 of the Build Back Better Act proposes. As Chairman of the Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education and in keeping with my belief that education is a key to success in life, establishing this national pre-K program has been a long-held goal. Section 23001 also provides $500 million for the Marianas and the three smaller territories to implement a new child care program for children from birth to age five. Eligible families earning under 75 percent of the median income would pay nothing for child care.
  • Protecting the Marianas from climate change. We are all too aware of the devastating impact of climate change, having lived through the intensity of Super Typhoon Yutu. Although our islands are responsible for little of the greenhouse gases that are causing this problem, the Build Back Better Act gives us a way to be part of the solution. Section 71002 requires the Department of Interior to hold offshore wind lease sales in federal waters around our islands, which could reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. Section 136302 provides a 30 percent tax credit for installation of residential solar and wind systems. And the Build Back Better Act makes up to $7,500 in tax credits available for purchase of a new electric vehicle, up to $4,000 for a used EV, and a 30% credit for electric bikes. The federal government covers all the costs of these tax credits. In addition, Section 70902 includes $30 million for technical assistance to help the insular areas continue planning for climate change mitigation, adaptation, and resilience in the years ahead.

Next week, Congress will continue work on the Build Back Better Act to ensure that priorities are met and that the bill pays for itself. Solidifying agreement among Democrats is essential for passage, because all Republicans will vote against this historic legislation.

Food stamps: More eligible, benefits up 23%

More families will be eligible for food aid through the Marianas Nutrition Assistance Program and their maximum benefit will increase 23 percent under a new memorandum of understanding negotiated with the Biden administration for fiscal year 2022 and signed by the Commonwealth this week. The benefit increase will be retroactive to October 1. The changes, which move the Marianas towards parity with the national Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, SNAP, are possible because of the $30 million dollars we included in the American Rescue Plan. The new MOU moves the income threshold for eligibility from 100 percent of the federal poverty level to 130 percent, as is used nationwide for SNAP. As many as 2,000 additional participants may be added to the program as a result. For a family of four on Saipan the new monthly benefit maximum will be $1,231, on Rota and the Northern Islands $1,498, and on Tinian $1,301. This is higher than in the lower 48 U.S. States, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The Agriculture Department increased benefits for Rota, Tinian, and the Northern Islands in 2014 at my request because of the higher cost of food on those islands.

The new MOU also sets up a rainy day fund to deal with increased and unexpected need, a priority for me. Last October, the Commonwealth threw families out of the program and cut benefits 25 percent across the board. That was totally unnecessary because in Congress we added an extra $14 million for Marianas NAP in the FY21 appropriation and $30 million more in the American Rescue Plan. I also asked President Biden to increase the Marianas annual block grant from $12 million to $30 million to ensure the safety of the program. He did include the $30 million in his FY22 budget, which the House passed in July.

Marianas population falls to 47,329

The U.S. Census Bureau released initial 2020 Census data for the Northern Mariana Islands on Thursday, showing a population of 47,329 on April 1 of last year. This is a decline of 6,554, or 12.2%, from the 2010 population of 53,883. The 2020 Marianas housing unit count showed a corresponding decrease of 12.3% from 20,850 to 18,920. Except for the Northern Islands, where population increased from zero to seven, population fell on every island and in every precinct. Saipan’s population fell by 4,835 (10%), Rota’s by 634 (25.1%), and Tinian’s by 1,092 (34.8%). Population counts for other U.S. insular areas were also released, showing that all areas lost population over the last 10 years. American Samoa’s population dropped 10.5% from 55,519 to 49,710; Guam’s decreased 3.5% from 159,358 to 153,836; and the U.S Virgin Islands’ shrank by 18.1%, from 106,405 to 87,146. This week’s data release was just the first of a series that will provide a wealth of census information about the Marianas. The Census Bureau will issue more demographic data, and social, economic, and housing characteristics of the islands in the coming months.

Survivors support bill clears House 

Federal funding for emergency shelters and other assistance for victims of domestic violence in the Marianas is set to rise under legislation passed by the House on Tuesday. H.R. 2119, the Family Violence Prevention and Services Improvement Act I cosponsored, boosts the Marianas’ grant allocation fourfold to $600,000, the minimum provided to states. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has increased the risk for intimate partner violence and disrupted services that offer protection and support to survivors. The additional funding provided in the bill also ensures victims can continue to access the toll-free national domestic violence hotline. H.R. 2119 now goes to the Senate for consideration. The National Domestic Violence Hotline is open 24/7, call 800-799-SAFE (7233) or text “START” to 88788.

Social Security bill increase benefits 

In the Marianas about 3,300 people count on Social Security payments, which add $25 million to our economy annually. However without action the trust funds that support this critical program will be depleted in just 13 years. That is why this week, along with 193 other Democrats in the House, I introduced the Social Security 2100 Act to not only prevent future cuts but also increase benefits for all current and future beneficiaries, institute an improved cost-of-living adjustment, or COLA, to better reflect the living expenses of our man’amko, and cut taxes for millions of beneficiaries. Our bill sets a new minimum benefit at 25 percent above the poverty line, so no one retires into poverty. Read more about the bill here.

Vets therapy bill now law

With suicide rates on the rise, the Veterans Administration must do a better job in providing veterans with the care and tools needed to get on the path to recovery, including alternative therapies like meditation. This is the goal of H.R. 2359, the Whole Veteran Act, which the President signed into law on Friday.

LIHEAP funds released for NMI

Fiscal year 2017 federal energy assistance funds for low income families were released, including $189,544 for households in the Northern Marianas Islands. The Commonwealth Department of Community and Cultural Affairs distributes these funds that are expected to help over 400 NMI households pay part of their monthly power bills.

Caregivers eligible for parole

Families dependent on foreign workers to help with care of man’amko, medical patients, or children with special needs will welcome news that caregivers may now apply for humanitarian parole. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services made the announcement today.

Grants:

Jobs:

Public Comments:

THIS WEEK

  • H.R. 5142 - To award posthumously a Congressional Gold Medal, in commemoration to the service members who perished in Afghanistan on August 26, 2021, during the evacuation of citizens of the United States and Afghan allies (passed by voice vote)
  • H.R. 2989 - Financial Transparency Act (passed, 400-9)
  • H.R. 4035 - Real Justice for Our Veterans Act (passed by voice vote)
  • H.R. 2119 - Family Violence Prevention and Services Improvement Act (passed, 228-200)

NEXT WEEK

  • H.R. 3469 - Veteran Entrepreneurship Training Act
  • H.R. 4256 - Investing in Main Street Act of 2021
  • H.R. 3462 - SBA Cyber Awareness Act of 2021