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pnms-stimulus Stimulus compromise cuts state, school aid, leaves Amtrak

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pnms-stimulus Stimulus compromise cuts state, school aid, leaves Amtrak

The $850 million for Amtrak is in.
The $20 billion for school construction could be out, along with another $39 billion in state aid.
Those are among the local implications of an amendment co-sponsored by U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, to the massive economic stimulus bill passed by the U.S. Senate this week. Collins' amendment was co-sponsored by Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Nebraska, and supported by Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine. The amendment became the base bill for negotiations between leaders in the Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives.
Collins' amendment called for an $838 billion stimulus bill. On Wednesday, a congressional conference committee negotiated a stimulus worth $789 billion.
During a critical procedural vote in the Senate on Monday, Collins and Snowe were lauded by several Democrats for breaking Republican party ranks to support the bipartisan amendment, which President Barack Obama hopes will keep the country from sinking deeper into recession.
Although Collins and Snowe were receiving plaudits from Democrats, it remains to be seen how their efforts will be viewed in Maine.
The U.S. House of Representatives had passed a bill that would have brought an estimated $700 million to Maine over the next two years and included close to $20 million in federal aid for special education and school construction in greater Portland school districts.
The Collins compromise eliminated the $20 billion slated for school construction.
However, it provided a total of $41.6 billion in education programs, including $13.5 billion in special education funding. The latter, Collins said Monday, brings the federal government closer to its promise of funding 40 percent of special education - a 1975 mandate the government has never met.
"This is the granddaddy of federal mandates," Collins said during a 15-minute presentation on the Senate floor Monday.
Collins' amendment also excluded $39 billion in state aid included in the House bill that would've gone to states struggling to bridge budget gaps. Collins defended the measure, saying states would still receive an additional $200 billion, $87 billion of which would flow through Medicaid programs to insure the unemployed.
Collins said Maine would receive $490 million of that allocation.
She also said the state would receive $133 million of the $45.5 billion slated for transportation infrastructure, and the funding would result in the creation of 6,000 jobs.
Despite early reports that the compromise would eliminate an $800 million slated for Amtrak, the amendment calls for $850 million for the passenger rail service for infrastructure upgrades. It also includes $250 million in grants to states for rail improvements and $2 billion for high-speed rail development.
Local rail advocates hope federal funds will lead to the planned expansion of the Amtrak Downeaster from Portland to Brunswick. The state Legislature has already enacted a bill that would fund the $35 million needed for the expansion. But if the expansion meets stimulus funding criteria, the state bond measure could be replaced by a grant.
Patricia Quinn, executive director of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, said this week that the "Portland-North" project is shovel-ready.
"I've been eating, breathing and sleeping this extension for over two years," Quinn said. "I've personally talked to the staff of each member of the delegation and we're hopeful that a funding mechanism comes out of the stimulus."
Quinn said the Portland-Brunswick extension would spur economic development, adding that the Downeaster is the nexus of three development projects, Freeport's Village Station, Brunswick's Maine Street Station and Saco Island Point in York County.
The stimulus package does not allow operational funding for Amtrak. Quinn said she hopes Collins has the ability to keep funding for the service in the bill, although pressure from some GOP leaders to remove it foreshadowed a battle.
The Downeaster subsidy has typically come through an annual allocation from the Maine Department of Transportation, which in turn receives money from the federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality program.
CMAQ funds account for 80 percent of the Downeaster's operational budget. The remainder comes from a state grant program. Downeaster advocates and Gov. John Baldacci are seeking an extension of CMAQ funding, which is slated to end Sept. 30.
Gaining a funding extension will likely require support from the congressional delegation, especially Collins, who sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee. Appropriations is expected to play a large part in determining the future of CMAQ funding.
"I think we're in good hands," Quinn said.
Collins and Snowe were among just three Senate Republicans who backed the stimulus bill.
"The bill isn't perfect," Collins said Monday. But, she added, "it can go a long way toward job creation and helping the country."

Steve Mistler can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or smistler@theforecaster.net.
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