by Federal Relations Staff
Members of the NLC Board of Directors and Hispanic Elected Local Officials (HELO), met in Washington, D.C., last Thursday to visit Capitol Hill, the White House and the U.S. Department of Transportation and lobby on behalf of local priority issues, including reauthorization of federal transportation legislation, funding for the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program and comprehensive immigration reform.
The group attended a meeting at the White House Old Executive Office Building, which included Cecilia Muñoz, White House director of the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, and David Agnew, deputy director, to share NLC's activities on comprehensive immigration reform and identify ways that NLC might help reframe the message on immigration in the nation.
NLC Second Vice President Marie Lopez Rogers, mayor, Avondale, Ariz., told Muñoz that, "We are ready to be your partner" in response to a White House request for "leaders around the country to help us make the case" for comprehensive immigration reform.
NLC First Vice President Ted Ellis, mayor, Bluffton, Ind., called the meetings a success despite some of the bad news on the federal budget the group heard.
"Our meetings today served as a call to action for NLC members to speak out on the programs critical for providing community services," said Ellis. "As community leaders, we must continue to speak on behalf of the people we serve and the programs that are vital to economic growth and vitality such as CDBG and local transportation programs."
Ellis added, "In our meetings, we heard that the outcry against dramatic cuts in CDBG were not as loud as some of the other voices, so we must redouble our efforts to demonstrate the importance of federal housing and transportation programs to communities and the economic health of the entire nation."
Ellis met with Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), who along with his aide, acknowledged the challenging environment of uncertainty that was widespread in meetings on the Hill on Thursday. Lugar reminisced fondly on his days in local government as mayor of Indianapolis from 1968-1975 and NLC president in 1971.
Ellis also met with Adam Howard, senior policy advisor to Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.), who was not optimistic that the federal spending environment would be favorable to cities.
Lobbying on behalf of funding for transportation and CDBG, the group met with U.S. DOT officials to discuss reauthorization of federal surface transportation legislation, which provides billions of dollars each year for critical highway, bridge and transit programs. The Administration outlined provisions of a $559 billion proposal and several initiatives such as expanding the definition of roads available for federal funding and a major increase in funding. Unfortunately, without new revenue, Congress will not be able to fund any expansion of transportation programs and is instead looking to cut current programs.
At a meeting with Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), Rogers was told that Congress' first priority must be to address the federal deficit and debt, and that it is likely that programs like CDBG and surface transportation will be cut in order to reduce the federal deficit and debt. Rogers responded by documenting the favorable impact that CDBG and transportation funding have had on the City of Avondale and that a loss of funding for either of these programs will hurt the city and its residents.
"Cities and towns across America are using these programs to improve their communities, make surface transit available to their residents, rebuild their infrastructure, and respond to the foreclosure crisis," Rogers said.
In response, Kyl stated, "We cannot continue to spend the way we have; the money is just not there."
Though for different reasons, that sentiment was echoed by members of the majority staff of the Senate Transportation, Housing and Urban Development Appropriations Subcommittee.
Meeting with a large contingent of NLC members, including Ellis, Rogers, Mayor John Cook of El Paso, Texas, and Mayor David Baker of Kenmore, Wash., staff members Alex Keenan and Meaghan McCarthy reiterated what a difficult time appropriators are facing. The House of Representatives, they noted, will cut appropriations for CDBG and transportation dramatically - they may even eliminate funding for CDBG. The Senate will work to reinstate some of those funds, but at the end of the day, programs like CDBG will face significant cuts because of the current fiscal crisis.
Keenan and McCarthy underscored that Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who chairs the subcommittee, knows how important these and other programs are to cities and towns, but appropriators face unprecedented difficulties crafting appropriations bills. They also pointed out that unless cities and towns across America hold "the feet of senators and representatives to the fire," members of Congress will be able to vote to reduce funding for these programs without concern over the political implications of what they are doing.
On the matter of reauthorizing the surface transportation act, Keenan and McCarthy were no more optimistic. The House they said will produce a reauthorization bill that will cut transportation funding by nearly one third and the Senate will try to adequately fund the program. There is no easy way to come to an agreement, they said, predicting that no new surface transportation act will make its way to the President's desk for his signature.
Dan Gilmartin, executive director of the Michigan Municipal League, met with staff from Michigan Sens. Carl Levin (D) and Debbie Stabenow (D). Gilmartin thanked the senators for their continued support for CDBG, including signing on to a "Dear Colleague" letter calling for the highest funding possible. In addition, both of the Michigan senators expressed support for NLC's position on transportation authorization, hoping to collaborate with local governments on finding ways to fix the nation's crumbling infrastructure.
Mayor Cook met with Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) and staff from Sen. John Cornyn's (R-Texas) office. Cook highlighted the important role that CDBG funding has had in his community and also expressed his concerns that budget cuts are threatening to cut, or possibly eliminate, the program.
"CDBG is one of the most flexible and transparent programs," Cook told Hutchison. "The services El Paso provides through CDBG help stabilize our economy and allows your constituents to thrive. This is a powerful program that must remain a priority."
Other participants in Washington, D.C., included HELO President Sergio Rodriguez, alderman, New Haven, Conn.; Melvin (Kip) Holden, mayor-president, Baton Rouge, La.; A. Keith McDonald, mayor, Bartlett, Tenn.; and Laura Padgett, council member, Wilmington, N.C.