March 23, 2013

Udall Gets Rural Vets Health and Mining Reform Priorities in Senate Budget Blueprint

WASHINGTON - Before the Senate adjourned around 5 a.m. Saturday morning, U.S. Senator Tom Udall (D-N.M.) voted for a budget with a balanced approach to address the debt and deficit while investing in middle-class families and taking steps to create jobs and rebuild the economy. The Fiscal Year 2014 Senate budget cleared the chamber by a vote of 50-49. 

"Enacting this budget would replace the devastating cuts in the sequester with support for small businesses and middle-class families working to make ends meet," said Udall, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee. "It provides a sensible and fair approach that would save thousands of jobs in our state and I look forward to improving upon it further as we move into the Appropriations process."

During the consideration of the Senate budget resolution, Udall won passage of an amendment to lay the groundwork for Congressional reform of the 1872 Mining Law and establish a royalty for hardrock minerals for the first time on federal lands. The unanimous voice vote was the first major Senate floor action on hardrock mining reform in years. Udall's amendment was supported by the bipartisan leadership of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee-Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Lisa Murksowski (R-Alaska)-along with fellow New Mexico Sen. Martin Heinrich, and provides momentum to subsequent reform legislation.

"This was a very important first step to closing this long standing loophole," Udall said in response to the unanimous voice vote. "At a time of such strict fiscal constraints, we cannot afford free access for large companies to extract minerals like gold, silver, copper, and uranium from public lands with no compensation to the taxpayers. We have abandoned mines that need cleanup throughout the West and mining royalties and fees should cover those costs and help reduce our deficits."

In addition, Udall also secured unanimous consent to include a bipartisan amendment with Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) to encourage the expansion of access to health care for rural veterans through telehealth and other programs. His amendment seeks to reduce the burdens of travel for veterans to reach VA medical facilities. The provision was added to the underlying veterans section of the Senate budget resolution, which also calls for improved processing of benefits claims.

Udall also teamed with Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) to include an amendment to add resolving VA leases for major medical facilities to the budget, an issue blocking a VA clinical research and pharmacy coordinating center in Albuquerque, along with 11 other planned leased facilities around the country.

"Expanding access to health care is critical for the growing number of veterans who live in large, rural states like New Mexico," said Udall. "Telehealth utilizes new technologies to give care centers the ability to treat more patients who would otherwise need to travel extensively to see a specialist. Getting the Albuquerque clinic up and running would serve numerous New Mexico veterans and this lease accounting dispute should not continue to stand between them and the health care they have earned."

Udall authored three other amendments that ultimately did not receive consideration during the busy budget debate. These initiatives sought to reinforce reform of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), aid tribal colleges and provide full funding for the Department of Education's Impact Aid program, which assists school districts with large areas of federal lands. Sen. Heinrich cosponsored the efforts.

Udall's amendment to enable further reform of the National Nuclear Security Administration would have complimented the advisory panel he successfully established in the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act in light of recent cost overruns, management issues and security breaches.

"By offering this amendment to the budget I am sending a message to DOE that our national labs need proper oversight to ensure our nuclear stockpile is safe, secure and reliable," said Udall. "The recent mistakes of the NNSA pose a risk to our national security, as well as to the health and safety of the scientists, engineers and other workers at the labs. My efforts on this front will continue."

Udall's first of two amendments on education would have enabled full funding of Impact Aid, which supports school districts that lose local revenue by teaching students who live on federal lands, such as military bases and Indian reservations. The second helped tribal colleges by adjusting the federal funding cycles in advance of the academic year, allowing them to make faculty decisions, repair school buildings and offer scholarships to students before the new school year begins.

Click here to watch Udall's remarks on the Senate floor in support of his amendments to the budget resolution.

Following the passage of a budget resolution, the Senate will begin crafting Appropriations legislation to fund the federal government for FY2014.

"The budget blueprint provides the framework for how we will face our fiscal and economic challenges, and outlines our priorities as a nation," said Udall. "By working on these amendments, I wanted to be sure the Senate budget reflected New Mexico's priorities. I welcome this return to regular order on the budget and will continue to defend the interests of our state through the appropriations process."