President Obama has signed a $410-billion spending measure that will carry many federal agencies through the end of fiscal year 2009. The legislation, which Obama signed March 11, funds most of the major federal construction programs, increasing spending for some accounts from 2008 levels, but trimming funding for others.

The appropriations bill moved quickly through the House, but had a bumpy path in the Senate, as critics complained about the overall size of the measure and its estimated $7.7 billion billion in "earmarks," specifying funds for individual projects or activities. With such criticism in the air, Obama and House Democratic leaders endorsed further restrictions on earmarked funding.

Among construction accounts included in the new $410-billion package [see table in lead news story in 3/9/09 issue of ENR], the Federal Transit Administration receives $10.1 billion, up 8% from last year, and General Services Administration federal-buildings construction gets $746 million, more than double its 2008 level.

Construction programs that saw their funding cut from 2008 include GSA repairs and alterations, down 4%, and federal-aid highways, whose obligation limit was pared 1%. But 2008's highway account included $1 billion for improvements to bridges across the country. That funding wasn't repeated in the newly enacted measure.

The legislation combines nine of the 12 appropriations bills for 2009. Agencies funded by those bills, which include the departments of Transportation, Interior and Housing and Urban Development and the Environmental Protection Agency, have been operating since last October under a stopgap measure, generally at 2008 spending levels.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) said that "we have finally closed the book on last year's appropriations work." Inouye added, "This legislation will not only compliment the recently enacted recovery package, but will also provide much-needed guidance to executive agencies that have been operating without such guidance for the past six months."

Aware of the criticism over earmarks, House Democratic leaders earlier in the day announced tighter conditions on the practice. Under their plan, when a House member requests an earmark, the relevant federal agency will have 20 days to review the project to determine whether it is eligible to get funds and also meets statutory goals. In addition, federal agencies will have to make sure that funds allocated for the earmarked project will be awarded through competitive bidding.

Obama said, "I am signing an imperfect omnibus bill because it's necessary for the ongoing functions of government, and we have a lot more work to do....But I also view this as a departure point for more far-reaching change." He said the House Democrats' new earmark restrictions "hold great promise."