Tech Wins Big in Senate Budget Bill
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Congress' desperate scramble for revenue to reduce the deficit may turn out to be a bonanza for tech, clearing spectrum for wireless broadband deployment and increasing the visas for foreign workers with high-tech skills.
Under the provisions of the U.S. Senate's Deficit Reduction Act passed Thursday night, lawmakers approved an April 2009 hard deadline for television stations to move out of their analog spectrum and begin exclusively broadcasting in digital.
Congress plans to dedicate part of the vacated spectrum to first responders and auction off the rest to wireless broadband providers. The auction is expected to raise as much as $25 billion for the federal coffers.
As a bonus for tech, the Senate also increased the cap for H-1B visas for next year by 30,000 workers, as well as the fees for the visas by $500.
The Senate also raised the fees for L-1 visas, which companies use to transfer workers already employed overseas into the United States. The plan is estimated to generate an additional $100 million for the government.
John Ensign of Nevada, chairman of the Senate Republican High Tech Task Force, called the passage of the bill a "significant victory not only for the American taxpayer but also for our nation's high-tech innovators and entrepreneurs. We have taken a major step forward in our transition to digital television, broadband deployment and third-generation wireless services."
Sandra Boyd, vice president of the National Association of Manufacturers, issued a statement praising the Senate action on H-1B visas.
"The Senate has taken a very important step in acknowledging that a real crisis exists for U.S. employers. America has always benefited from the contributions of highly educated foreign professionals," Boyd said. "Without additional access to H-1B visas and green cards, American innovation and competitiveness will surely suffer."
The last hurdle for tech is to get the House, which is in the process of reconciling its own budget bill, to go along with the Senate. The House has also set a 2009 hard DTV transition deadline but differs with the Senate on the precise date and the amount of subsidies for digital converter boxes.
Under the current House visa plans, the Judiciary Committee has approved increasing L-1 visa fees but is balking at increasing the number of H-1B visas, with many lawmakers concerned about voter backlash over increasing foreign workers to compete with Americans.
According to the Programmers Guild of the United States, employment in U.S. software and related fields dropped from 2.1 million in March 2001 to 1.7 million in 2004. The guild also contends H-1B visas are used by tech companies to hire foreign workers below prevailing U.S. wage rates.
"What the House wants to do is meet its budget obligations but hurt our global competitiveness," said Jeff Lande, senior vice president of the Information Technology Association of America.
Differences between the two chambers have to be reconciled before sending the budget bill to President Bush by the end of the year.