President Joe Biden’s coronavirus relief proposal has moved forward with House approval of a $1.9-trillion package that adheres largely to his framework, but the legislation now moves to the Senate, where Democrats’ margin is barely enough to pass it, even if all vote for the legislation.
The House approved the bill, titled the American Rescue Plan Act, early on Feb. 27 by a 219-212 vote.
Already, the Senate parliamentarian has ruled that one element of the bill, a phased-in hike in the federal minimum wage, would be out of order in that chamber. That increase, eventually to $15 per hour, is in the House-passed version.
Unless Senate Democrats figure out a revised way to raise the wage, it would have to be stripped out of the measure and the revised bill sent back to the House. But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said the House would approve the modified version, even without the minimum-wage provision.
As large as the bill’s price tag is, it has relatively little direct construction funding, except for $1 billion for transit projects.
[View House Budget Committee detailed summary of the bill's provisions here.]
But the measure does include sweeping changes in the struggling multi-employer pension program, which affects companies, workers and retirees in the unionized construction sector.
The legislation also contains sizable amounts for transit agencies, airport authorities and Amtrak. But most of that money is specifically directed toward, or expected to go to, payroll and operations expenses.
In addition, water groups welcomed the inclusion of $538 million for low-income customers to assist in paying water and sewer bills.
The package's transportation section includes $30 billion for transit agencies, which follows $14 billion that they received in the coronavirus relief and appropriations bill that then-president Donald Trump signed into law on Dec. 27. Most of the new funding will go for payroll and other operating expenses.
$1B for Transit Projects
But $1 billion of the transit total is earmarked for construction-related purposes under the Federal Transit Administration’s Capital Investment Grants program.
Of the $1 billion, $750 million is earmarked for new fixed-guideway projects and “core capacity-improvement projects.” Eligible projects are those that received FTA funding allocations in fiscal 2019 or 2020.
The other $250 million would be allotted to projects in FTA’s “small starts” program.
Paul Skoutelas, American Public Transportation Association president and CEO, said in a statement that the legislation "distributes these funds in a manner that ensures that all public transit agencies can continue to be a lifeline for our essential workers, ensure Americans can get to vaccine distribution sites and advance our communities’ efforts to rebuild from the economic fallout of the pandemic.”
Airport authorities and agencies also receive $8 billion for purposes that include operating expenses, debt service and aid to airport concessionaires.
Amtrak would receive $1.5 billion to keep the railroad in full operation through Sept. 30, including $820 million for the Northeast Corridor, and the rest for Amtrak's national network service.
Elsewhere in the bill, upgrades for K-12 school facilities would be one of a number of eligible uses for $128.6 billion in aid, specifically for “testing, repairing, and upgrading projects to improve air quality in school buildings,” according to a U.S. Dept. of Education fact sheet.
But schools also can use funds to reduce class size, presumably by adding teachers and other personnel, buying personal protective equipment and hiring support staff, according to the House Education and Labor Committee.
Eligibility benchmarks track with schools-related provisions in the CARES Act, signed into law last March 27 and the coronavirus and appropriations measure enacted in December.
Related to the package of changes to multi-employer pension programs, according to a House Budget Committee summary of the bill, the federal Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. (PBGC) multi-employer program was already forecasting a major deficit before the pandemic hit.
Proposals to remedy the problem had been floated and discussed in the last Congress but no action ensued.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and four other organized-labor leaders said in a statement that the legislation “goes a long way toward stabilizing the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation and the multi-employer pension system overall.”
Multi-employer Pension Program Changes
One relief bill change is a program that would provide funds from government’ general fund to PBGC. The agency, which administers the federal pension-plan assistance program, then would provide financial help to multi-employer plans judged to be in “critical and declining” condition in 2020, 2021 or 2022.
The legislation doesn’t specify an authorized or appropriated funding amount.
In another change, effective for multi-employer pension plan years after 2030, the bill would increase the premium employers pay to PBGC per plan participant to $52, up from $31 now, to help support the PBGC multi-employer program.
According to a May 2020 report from consulting firm Segal, construction plans account for only 10% of multi-employer plans in critical and declining status. The report is based on 2019 data.
The report also says that construction multi-employer plans account for 60% of multi-employer plans in the healthiest condition—the “green zone.” Transportation ranks a distant second, with 14%.
Still, some construction multi-employer plans have had serious problems. By ENR's count, 16 construction industry plans facing financial woes have, since 2016, applied to the U.S. Treasury Dept. for permission to suspend paying benefits, temporarily or permanently, to plan participants.
According to PBGC, its multi-employer program includes about 1,400 pension plans that have a total of 10.9 million workers and retirees.
The legislation also includes an additional $500 million for the Low-Income Water Customer Assistance Program administered by the Health and Human Services Dept. That would supplement $638 million Congress appropriated for the new program in December..
In addition, the House-approved measure provides $350 billion to states and localities for COVID-response activities,to offset economic impacts or to replace revenue lost as a result of the pandemic.
Of the $350 billion, $195.3 billion would go to states and the District of Columbia, $65.1 billion to counties, $45.6 billion to cities, $20 billion to tribal governments, $19.5 billion to other localities and $4.5 billion to U.S. territories