WASHINGTON – Congress on Friday passed and sent to President Barack Obama a package of bills that renew highway and flood insurance programs and prevent some student loan interest rates from rising. Among the key components:
The highway bill:
— Reauthorizes transportation programs through September 2014 at a cost of more than $100 billion. About 80 percent of that goes to federal highway programs, 20 percent to mass transit.
— Retains the federal taxes — 18.4 cents a gallon for gasoline and 24.4 cents for diesel — that have been unchanged since 1993. Because the gas taxes are inadequate to pay for the bill, it includes other savings such as $9.4 billion from changing the method of calculating pension plan liabilities, $10.8 billion from increasing Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation premiums and $2.7 billion from raising premiums in the flood insurance program. It also saves $100 million by ending a loophole where machines selling roll-your-own cigarettes are not subject to tobacco taxes. Those savings also make up for the costs in the student loan bill.
— Ensures that 80 percent of Clean Water Act Violation fines paid by BP and others held responsible for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill goes to Gulf Coast states.
— Gives states more flexibility over how they spend federal highway aid and consolidates the number of highway programs by two-thirds. It also expands a loan guarantee program aimed at increasing private investment in infrastructure projects.
— Leaves out several items sought by House Republicans, including government approval of the Keystone XL oil pipeline and a stop to the Environmental Protection Agency regulating ash generated by coal-fired plants.
— Speeds up environmental impact studies on highway and transit construction projects and effectively reduces spending on "transportation enhancements" such as bike paths and sidewalks, with the agreement of Senate Democrats. The Senate also acquiesced to House demands that $1.4 billion for general land and water conservation be stripped from the bill.
— Extends for one year a federal timber subsidy program that provides $346 million to 700 counties in 41 states. Almost one-third of that goes to Oregon.
— Directs the Army Corps of Engineers to speed up efforts to protect the Great Lakes from Asian carp.
The student loan bill:
— Keeps interest rates for new subsidized Stafford loans for college students at 3.4 percent for another year. Without congressional action, the rates would have doubled to 6.8 percent on July 1. The action saves some 7.4 million students an average $1,000 in higher interest costs over the life of the loan, typically a decade or longer.
— About $1 billion of the $6 billion cost of the low-interest rate extension comes from a GOP plan to limit federal subsidies for Stafford loans for undergraduates to six years. Currently, the government charges no interest while students are still in school, even if it takes them longer than six years to graduate.
The flood insurance bill:
— Extends for five years the life of the National Flood Insurance Program, which provides subsidized insurance to about 5.6 million policyholders, mostly in flood-prone areas.
— The bill seeks to reduce some of the nearly $18 billion the program owes the Treasury by phasing in more actuarially sound premium rates, ending subsidies for some properties such as vacation homes and relocating homes that are subject to repetitive claims.