WASHINGTON, D.C. — It’s Christmastime in Washington, which means two things. First, Congress is waiting until the end of the year, which is now a tradition, to approve must-pass bills that will keep the government functioning.
Second, there are satchels full of goodies.
There’s money from Washington for the Great Lakes, for struggling Ohio homeowners and blighted neighborhoods, for NASA, for security at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. Lawmakers are playing Santa. They appear to outnumber the credit-card-watching Grinches who loathe big government spending or are unhappy that their attempts to push back White House rules or Democratic policies — on the environment, worker rights, abortion, financial regulation, refugee restrictions — got tossed out in negotiations.
So for Ohio and Ohioans, courtesy of Ohio’s congressional delegation and their colleagues in the Capitol, here are some of the dozens of provisions in the year-end, $1.1 trillion spending bill and a related $650 billion tax package, unveiled Tuesday night and Wednesday and awaiting votes over the next week.
HELP TO PREVENT BLIGHTED AND FORECLOSED HOUSING
Congress is giving another $2 billion to the federal Hardest Hit Fund, which used much of its initial $7.6 billion to help homeowners who couldn’t keep up mortgage payments. The program has been used in 18 states, including Ohio and Michigan, hit hardest by the mortgage foreclosure crisis. Lawmakers agreed in principle Wednesday afternoon on providing the additional $2 billion.
The foreclosure crisis may be over, but the remnants — declining home values and struggling homeowners who in some cases owe more than their homes are worth — remain. About 25,000 Ohio homeowners have benefited already, although delays in getting them help prompted a scathing review in October from a federal inspector general.
Some Hardest Hit Fund money has also gone for demolition of blighted property, much of it abandoned because of debt or foreclosure. The new money can be used for that as well, although details must be worked out, according to U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown’s office. Brown worked on this with Sens. Rob Portman of Ohio and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan. Groups including the Thriving Communities Institute of the Western Reserve Land Conservancy have pushed for demolition money, saying that by tearing down eyesore homes and creating green spaces, they and others can make neighborhoods more appealing and prepare them for redevelopment.
In addition to providing $300 million to fund Great Lakes Restoration Initiative environmental cleanups and efforts to fight algal blooms, the spending billincludes language to keep the federal government from dumping sediment from the Cuyahoga River into Lake Erie without the state of Ohio’s approval. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has repeatedly tried to save money by putting the material in the lake instead of an onshore disposal facility, even though the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency says the material contains too many toxins to safely go in the lake.
Rep. Dave Joyce, a Russell Township Republican, says this will “make sure the Great Lakes remain an environmental and economic powerhouse for Northeast Ohio.” (See our separate story.)
NASA’S GLENN RESEARCH CENTER
The Cleveland center specializes in propulsion and aeronautics, and its work on solar-powered propulsion, considered a key technology for future space flight, appeared to be in jeopardy. That’s because powerful members of the Senate Appropriations Committee — members who have their own NASA centers in their states — had other priorities. They wanted to transfer money, potentially tens of millions of dollars, from accounts that pay for work the Glenn center and use it for a Maryland-based project that would extend the usefulness of communications and observational satellites. But by increasing NASA’s overall budget, Congress boosted the amount of money for aeronautics and space technology, taking care of all the competing centers. (See our separate story.)
The spending bill will provide $50 million for Cleveland to offset the city’s cost of providing security for the 2016 Republican National Convention. Philadelphia also will receive $50 million to pay for security for next year’s Democratic National Convention. These amounts are the same as the money provided to other host cities for recent political conventions, including the 2012 RNC in Tampa, Florida and the 2012 DNC in Charlotte, North Carolina.
“Ensuring the safety of convention goers and the Cleveland community is a critical component of the convention planning process,” Portman, a Republican, said. (See our separate story.)
TAX CREDITS FOR DEVELOPERS
A companion tax bill will extend New Markets Tax Credits for five more years. These provide incentives for development in low-income areas and have helped spur millions in development projects in Ohio’s cities. “Efforts like these build up our state and grow our economy,” said Brown, a Democrat.
MILITARY ARMS TRAINING AND DEVELOPMENT IN NORTHERN OHIO
The spending bill includes $9.4 million to upgrade the indoor firing range facility at the Youngstown Air Reserve Station. And it has $371 million to support research and development and procurement of 81 Stryker vehicles — tank-like military vehicles — with an upgraded weapon system, with some of the work being done at the Joint Systems Manufacturing Center in Lima, Ohio.
“At a time when the United States faces increasing dangers, it is critically important that we provide our military with the resources and training necessary to fulfill a range of national security missions, from degrading and destroying Islamic extremism to deterring Russian aggression against our allies in Europe, to supporting the sovereignty of U.S. allies in the South China Sea,” said Portman.
EVEN MORE HOUSING HELP
The tax bill also extends for another year a law shielding homeowners from taxes on the value of debt relief if a lender forgives that debt. Before the Mortgage Forgiveness Debt Relief Act of 2007 was passed and extended, homeowners who had trouble paying their mortgages and got lenders to forgive some of their debt had to treat the debt relief as if were extra income. This meant they had to pay taxes on the amount of debt forgiven.
Additionally, the tax package will permanently lock in the minimum value of a tax incentive offered to developers who build housing for low-income families, Brown said. The Low Income Housing Tax Credit will offer a credit worth at least 9 percent of the development costs.
“The permanent fix at 9 percent of the Low Income Housing Tax Credit will allow nonprofit and developers of affordable housing to leverage additional private capital,” said a statement from Hal Keller, president of the Ohio Capital Corporation for Housing. “The additional private sector investment will close funding gaps and keep rents low.”
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