Jan. 25, 2004 – A $328 billion omnibus spending bill passed by Congress on Thursday to fund most federal agencies in the current fiscal year includes several appropriations for the Virgin Islands as well as a policy decision of interest to the territory.
Thursday's vote was in the Senate. The House of Representatives approved the bill in December. According to national news reports, President Bush is expected to sign the measure, which increases spending by $6 billion over fiscal year 2002, shortly.
The long-overdue legislation combined seven spending measures into one omnibus bill that also contained more than 7,000 "home state" appropriations proposed by lawmakers for the benefit of their respective constituencies. Among them were these for the Virgin Islands, which is represented in the House by Delegate Donna M. Christensen:
– $636,000 for "rural development" sewage system projects, through the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Office of the Undersecretary for Rural Development. A House-Senate conference committee directed the undersecretary to give consideration to the following requests for financial and/or technical assistance: rehabilitation of six major wastewater pump stations on St. Croix and St. Thomas, rehabilitation and replacement of sewer infrastructure components on St. Croix, wastewater pumping and treatment system improvements on St. Thomas and St. John, and technical assistance in formulating a prioritized wastewater system maintenance-management system.
– $500,000 for VITRAN buses, through the Federal Transit Administration.
– $350,000 for wastewater treatment infrastructure improvements, through an assistance grant from the Environmental Protection Agency.
– $100,000 for law-enforcement technologies under the Interoperable Communications Technology Program for Community Oriented Policing Services.
The policy decision of interest is that the bill as passed by the Senate dropped a House provision that would have lifted the ban on travel by U.S. citizens to Cuba. The Virgin Islands tourism industry got a huge boost in the 1960s when the ban was imposed, and there is broad-based concern within the hospitality industry that it will take a severe hit if and when that ban is lifted.
Senate Democrats had blocked a vote on the bill on Tuesday. Opposition centered on provisions calling for a two-year delay in requiring country-of-origin labeling of foods, allowing the administration to reduce the number of white-collar employees eligible for overtime pay, and easing restrictions a bit on the number of local television stations a company can own. But the measure passed on Thursday on a 65-28 vote.
Under the umbrella of the omnibus measure, Congress passed seven spending bills that it had been unable to pass individually. The seven are among 13 that Congress must approve annually to fund the federal government.
The bill will fund the U.S. Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Education, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Justice, Labor, State, Transportation, Treasury and Veterans Affairs, along with funding the District Columbia's local government and foreign aid for the fiscal year that began in October. Funding had been approved earlier for the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security.
The $17 billion foreign aid appropriation includes $2.4 billion to fight HIV/AIDS in Africa and the Caribbean.
The measure also includes a 4.1 percent pay increase for federal civilian employees and a 2.2 percent increase for members of Congress themselves. And it reduces from 90 days to one day the period of time that the FBI must keep records of background checks done on applicants to purchase firearms.
While the appropriation for FY 2003 came nearly four months into the fiscal year, Congress didn't approve funding for FY 2002 until last February.
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