By Neil Bomberg
A bill that would seriously undermine several key aspects of the Workforce Investment Act (WIA), passed the House on March 15 over strong objections from NLC, the U.S.Conference of Mayors, the National Association of Counties, the National Association of Workforce Boards, the National Skills Coalition and numerous other stakeholder organizations.
H.R. 803, the Supporting Knowledge and Investing in Lifelong Skills or SKILLS Act, would grant governors and state workforce boards total authority over workforce development funds; allow governors and state workforce boards to eliminate local workforce development areas without consulting local elected officials; establish new workforce development areas or single state workforce development areas without consulting local elected officials; eliminate any role for local elected officials and business leaders (while requiring that local elected officials are fiscally liable for funds spent in their local areas); eliminate or allow governors to consolidate many targeted programs, without providing the critical assistance needed by vulnerable populations such as migrant workers, veterans, low income adults and youth, adults with literacy and language needs, people with disabilities, ex-offenders, and others with significant barriers to employment; eliminate all youth program funding; and allow governors to direct all SKILLS Act funds to any activities they wish so long as they can nominally be described as workforce related. In addition, the bill would freeze funding for the next 7 years, making it impossible for the federal government to adjust funding based on changing economic circumstances.
On March 7, NLC President Marie Lopez Rogers wrote in a joint letter with the presidents of the U. S. Conference of Mayors and National Association of Counties, and the board chair of the National Association of Workforce Boards, that:
"We cannot . . . support reauthorization [of the Workforce Investment Act] that fails to secure the delicate governing balance currently crafted in WIA. Furthermore, we cannot support efforts which may reduce access to education and training for our nation's most vulnerable workers by eliminating designated funding for disconnected youth, and permitting the use of critical WIA funding for purposes other than workforce development activities."
The letter, which was read into the record by John Tierney (D-MA), and referenced by other House members, went on to say:
"America's counties, cities and towns have the potential to be the engines of full national economic recovery and growth, and there is nothing more important to local elected officials, business leaders and workforce investment boards than building successful business-led workforce systems to support the individuals in our communities develop the necessary skills for the jobs of the future. As such, we look forward to working with you to ensure that any final WIA reauthorization bill sustains a balanced approach that fully reflects local and regional economies, and is truly responsive to the needs of our communities, citizens, businesses and industries."
"We strongly support enactment of a bi-partisan workforce development bill that is responsive to emerging economic realities and business needs. The reauthorization of WIA is essential for preservation of critical workforce development funding, and a most important investment in our nation's economic future. However, we are unable to support H.R. 803 until Congress is able to address these significant concerns."
The White House also expressed its opposition to the bill. In a Statement of Administration Policy, the White House wrote:
"[A]ny effort to streamline the current system must allow for sufficient funding to meet the needs of workers and job-seekers, as well as adhere to certain core principles. It must improve services; provide easy one-stop access to those services, including for vulnerable populations; reflect employer and regional economic needs; enhance accountability and transparency; and promote continuous innovation and improvement."
H.R. 803 sales through committee and made its way to the floor in record time. The highly partisan bill was introduced by Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC) on March 4, was the subject of a hearing in her subcommittee on March 5, and adopted along party lines by the House Committee on Education and the Workforce Committee chaired by Rep. John Kline (R-MN) on March 6. It was brought to the floor on March 14, and passed by the House on a party line vote on March 15.
The bill will now move to the Senate where we expect it will be substantially changed to reflect many of the priorities outlined in NLC's March 7 letter. However, much work will have to be done to ensure that a bill is passed into law that retains a strong role for local elected officials and business leaders, addresses the needs of an unskilled workforce and those most in need of workforce assistance, and is responsive to local and regional economies.