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WASHINGTON — A spending bill slated for a vote in Congress this week includes $100 million that would allow the U.S. Navy to move ahead on a contract for a destroyer to be built at Maine’s Bath Iron Works, while state transportation programs would receive more than $160 million.
The $1.1 trillion spending bill unveiled by House and Senate negotiators would avoid another government shutdown while easing some “sequestration” budget cuts. The bill appears to have strong bipartisan backing, including members of Maine’s congressional delegation.
Some of the other items in the bill are likely to benefit Maine, including:
n $75 million in disaster relief to struggling fisheries, part of which will go to support New England’s dwindling groundfishing fleet.
n $3.4 billion nationally for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, a $170 million increase over the last year.
n $17.4 billion nationally for Section 8 housing vouchers, a $1 billion increase over sequester-reduced levels that could have resulted in more than 1,000 Maine families losing housing assistance.
The exact amount that each state will receive for some programs, such as LIHEAP and Section 8 housing, isn’t yet known.
The $100 million in additional funding for the DDG-51 destroyer — a 500-foot-long guided-missile destroyer considered a workhorse of the naval fleet — would allow the Navy to finalize a contract with BIW originally estimated at about $700 million.
“This funding is critical, and that is why I fought so hard to see that the money is included in the final bill,” Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican who serves on the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, said in a statement. “I spoke with Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Sean Stackley, last week, and he said the Navy is prepared to sign the contract option once the $100 million is made available.”
The Navy awarded BIW a $2.8 billion contract last June for four DDG-51 destroyers through fiscal year 2017, but left open the option of a fifth ship if Congress and the Navy could close a funding gap created by recent budget cuts. Contracts for five other ships were awarded to BIW’s principal competitor, Huntington Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula, Miss.
Jim DeMartini, spokesman for General Dynamics-owned BIW, said the contract for the fifth ship would not have an immediate effect on the shipyard’s workforce because construction is still likely several years away. But over the long term, the contract “would allow us to maintain more stability in the workforce than we would without the ship,” he said.
With more than 5,000 employees, BIW is one of the largest private employers in Maine. BIW laid off more than 200 workers last year in response to the cyclical nature of the shipyard’s workload.
In addition to the DDG-51 ships, BIW also has a contract to build three Zumwalt-class DDG-1000s, a next-generation “stealth destroyer” designed for operations close to shore. The spending bill contains $231.7 million for continued construction of the DDG-1000, the first of which is due for delivery to the Navy in late 2015.
The Portsmouth Naval Shipyard would receive $11.5 million to begin consolidating the shipyard’s structural workshops. Shipyard officials said Tuesday the money would be used to create a more modern steel fabrication facility, to renovate several buildings and to improve efficiency and energy conservation.
The bill also would pay for 29 F-35 joint strike fighters — parts of which are built at the Pratt & Whitney facility in Berwick — and would increase production to 39 aircraft next year.
Members of Maine’s delegation praised the increased funding for LIHEAP — an important program for thousands of low-income Mainers unable to adequately heat their homes — but said the amount was still less than requested and would fall short of meeting demand.
The Maine Department of Transportation says it would receive slightly more than $160 million — 90 percent of the $179.9 million in federal highway funding allocated to the state for the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30.
The bill eases some of the sequestration budget cuts — mandatory, indiscriminate reductions totaling about $100 billion a year — while making investments in some programs. For instance, the Head Start program for low-income children will see an increase of roughly $1 billion this year.
The compromise also restores the full cost-of-living adjustment for disabled veterans and war widows who receive pensions from the Department of Defense. The bill does not reverse the pension cuts for younger military retirees that were included in the budget compromise that set spending levels. Lawmakers continue to debate ways to restore those cuts.
An undetermined portion of that money will go to New England states struggling to support a groundfishing industry that was once the backbone of the region’s coastal economy but is now on the verge of collapse. Federal fisheries regulators slashed quotas on groundfish such as cod last year after assessments determined that fish populations were much worse than originally thought.
States will have flexibility in deciding how to spend the disaster relief.
In 1990, an estimated 350 Maine-based vessels spent at least part of the year fishing for groundfish in an industry that supported thousands of jobs, landing more than 15 million pounds of Atlantic cod that year alone. By comparison, the 40 to 45 Maine-based vessels still fishing for groundfish in 2011 landed just 750,000 pounds of cod.
A provision in the bill would also offer short-term relief to homeowners by blocking the Federal Emergency Management Agency from increasing premiums on people whose homes are not currently considered to be in a flood zone but are deemed to be flood prone under new, recently issued FEMA maps. A broader flood insurance relief bill could come up for debate later this month.
Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at:[email protected]