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September 4, 2015

To Rebuild Sandy Hook, Lawmakers Get Creative

Updated 12:01 p.m. | Not all that long ago, if you were a legislator representing a community that needed to rebuild a school after a tragedy, you might call upon the Appropriations Committee to get you the money.

That was before the Senate and the House essentially did away with congressionally directed spending through earmarking. Now, members of the Connecticut delegation are trying other means to get federal support to help pay for the estimated $42 million cost of building a new Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., to replace the one that was the site of last December’s mass shooting.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee adopted by voice vote an amendment offered by Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., to the reauthorization of the elementary and secondary education law known most recently as No Child Left Behind that would authorize funds from Project SERV, an Education Department program that helps schools recover from violent acts like shootings, to be used for school construction in cases like Newtown.

“This is encouraging news for Newtown and the students, teachers, and faculty of Sandy Hook Elementary. Since that terrible morning in December, the families of the victims and the entire Newtown community have been tested to the very limits of human grief,” Murphy said in a statement Wednesday.

“And through the pain and suffering, Newtown has come together to heal, and America has been behind this community the whole way. So when a major tragedy like this occurs, we feel a responsibility as a country to help,” Murphy added. “Now that this amendment is in place, I hope that my colleagues in the full Senate will agree that the little boys and girls at Sandy Hook Elementary shouldn’t be asked to walk the same halls where their classmates were slaughtered.”

Murphy’s amendment would only authorize funds – not appropriate them – but he ran into some questions at the HELP Committee where the top authorizer and the top appropriator are the same person.

HELP Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, is also the chairman of the Appropriations subpanel that handles the Education Department budget, and on Tuesday afternoon, Harkin said that while he sympathized with Murphy’s request, the budget account he sought to tap  didn’t have enough money.

“Maybe we can get some more money in appropriations … I don’t think so, though,” said Harkin, acknowledging the reality of the spending caps in place under the 2011 Budget Control Act.

Aides said the Project SERV account had carried over balances over the last few years, so appropriators have not needed to provide additional funds. According to the most recent available figures (which could have been before payouts for Newtown), it had about $6.5 million, far short of the amount that would be needed to fully fund the school construction.

HELP ranking member Lamar Alexander suggested that FEMA funds might be used for the Sandy Hook school construction, but Murphy was quick to point out that his office had explored that possibility and it would require a much larger legislative effort, since school shootings aren’t natural disasters.

Murphy is not alone in trying to find ways to promote the Sandy Hook project. Over in the House, Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-Conn., filed an amendment to the defense authorization bill that’s on the floor this week to establish a preference for defense contractors that help with school construction after violent acts take place.

“This amendment is another opportunity for my colleagues to help ensure that Sandy Hook Elementary School students, and school children in every community across the country that has faced unimaginable tragedy, have the support they need to continue their lives and to heal,” Esty said in a statement.

Such a preference might have some influence in Connecticut, a state that’s home to numerous defense contractors. The House Rules Committee will meet later Wednesday to pick which amendments are allowed to the defense bill.

The state of Connecticut approved a $50 million bond issue for Newtown, with the hope the federal money would come through, even though state lawmakers acknowledged that could be difficult, the Hartford Courant reported.

Connecticut’s other senator, Democrat Richard Blumenthal, has backed Murphy’s effort, and the delegation plans to keep pushing.

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