July 19, 2017
For further information, contact:
Mark Richert, Esq.
Director, Public Policy, AFB
This week, House appropriators unveiled the details of the spending plan that affects many of the key programs and funding streams that are of particular interest to the vision loss community. The so-called Labor, HHS, and Education (Labor H) appropriations bill speeding past major procedural hurtles in recent days is allowing advocates in our field to breathe deep sighs of relief even as the vast array of profound cuts proposed in the bill for other programs of importance to people with disabilities and to seniors generally could be devastating.
Advocates for the Independent Living Services for Older Individuals who are Blind (OIB) program had feared that any cuts would appear in the House version of the Labor H bill. However, as the official committee report accompanying the Labor H bill provides:
"Independent Living Services for Older Individuals Who Are Blind--The Committee recommends $33,317,000 for Independent Living Services for Older Individuals Who Are Blind, which is the same as the fiscal year 2017 enacted level and $63,000 above the fiscal year 2018 budget request. Funds are distributed to States according to a formula based on the population of individuals who are 55 or older, and provide support for services to persons 55 years old or over whose severe visual impairment makes gainful employment extremely difficult to obtain, but for whom independent living goals are feasible."
While the U.S. Senate must also weigh in on the fiscal year 2018 future of the OIB program, all indications are that the Senate will similarly propose to level fund the program. Advocates for the OIB program have been mobilizing to implement a longer-term strategy to both revamp and significantly increase funding for the essential services that the OIB program provides, and, while level funding for the OIB program means that no new resources are on the immediate horizon, most analysts agree that, in this intensely contentious and fiscally tenuous environment, level funding is a victory.
The House Labor H bill also largely level funds other key line items, including personnel preparation under Part D of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), similar training opportunities under the Rehabilitation Act, and the U.S. Department of Education program that supports critical programs and services such as BookShare. Notably, the House Labor H bill provides an additional million dollars over last year's appropriation level to support the work of the American Printing House for the Blind (APH).
Although this news provides a measure of comfort to advocates for the OIB program and to the vision loss community generally, the overall Labor H package, which is being debated in the full House Appropriations Committee even as this DirectConnect bulletin is being prepared, includes very painful cuts to a range of programs of national significance to seniors. Unless the Labor H bill is successfully amended during full Committee markup today, the bill would eliminate the State Health Insurance Assistance Program (SHIP) and make significant cuts to both Elder Justice programs and the Senior Community Service Employment Program (SCSEP). As advocates for older people with vision loss know all too well, the limited resources offered by the OIB program must be coordinated with and complemented by resources targeted to the needs of seniors in other areas if seniors are to have a hope of receiving the fullest possible array of much-needed services and supports.
Again, a number of discrete programs that our community cares about may have just dodged a bullet, the budget and appropriations process is far from over. Even though the U.S. House has largely succeeded in crafting its array of spending proposals, the Senate is moving at a much slower pace, and analysts are increasingly coming to expect that the array of federal appropriations bills will not move through the Congress in regular order but may be combined or truncated in some fashion. It is even possible that a so-called continuing resolution may be the mechanism that the Congress will once again turn to as a strategy to cope with the choppy fiscal waters. The Congress has yet to formally adopt the overall budget structure that is supposed to govern the spending limits for the various appropriations bills. Additionally, the Congress must also tackle the so-called debt ceiling, a highly politicized process that contributed to a federal government shutdown during the Obama administration.
The bottom line is that, for now, all indications are that specific programs topping the vision loss community's list of concerns appear to be on track for level funding. Additionally, in the event that the budget and appropriations process does not proceed under regular order but that the Congress merges the spending bills in some way or opts for a continuing resolution, the programs of specific concern to our community should not be cut but should be continued at current funding levels.