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Congress Revisits Construction Tiff

By David J. Hoff — February 23, 2009 1 min read
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As Congress rushed to finalize the $787 billion economic-stimulus package on Feb. 12, one relatively small program held things up: school construction.

Powerful Democrats—Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, among them—argued that the proposed new program would provide immediate economic relief for the construction industry while simultaneously improving the quality of school facilities.

But Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, objected, saying the federal government shouldn’t create a temporary program—$14 billion worth, as proposed by the House—to assist K-12 schools in an area that traditionally has been the responsibility of state and local governments.

Sen. Collins had enough clout to win the argument. As one of just three Republican senators willing to support the stimulus bill, her vote was necessary to stop a potential filibuster in the Senate and allow a vote on the bill’s final passage.

Democrats have, for decades, tried to create a school construction line item in the federal budget, citing research showing that the nation’s schools need billions of dollars in repairs. But GOP members have objected because they believe that the federal government shouldn’t be involved in the process of building or remodeling schools.

The House version of the stimulus bill would have provided $14 billion for school capital projects. In an amendment backed by Sen. Collins and other moderates, the Senate voted to remove the school construction money.

Sen. Harkin and other Democrats had hoped to restore a portion of the money in a conference report, but Sen. Collins blocked that effort.

The Maine Republican didn’t want to set such a precedent, said Kevin Kelley, a spokesman for Sen. Collins.

“If a new program was started under the stimulus proposal, it would be hard to fund in the future,” Mr. Kelley said.

Sen. Collins wouldn’t necessarily object if the House and Senate worked on creating a new school construction program and providing funding for it through the annual appropriations process, he added.

A version of this article appeared in the February 25, 2009 edition of Education Week

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