What Trump’s State of the Union Will Mean for Cities

Last night, President Donald Trump delivered his first State of the Union address. In a wide-ranging speech, he presented a vision heavy on bipartisanship and economic prosperity — but light on policy details. For city leaders, the night did little to illuminate upcoming priorities or tactics.

With the administration moving into high gear on several key initiatives, major moves are likely to come soon. But what, if anything, did the State of the Union tell us about the road ahead? For an informed answer, we asked six of NLC’s federal advocacy experts who represent diverse fields — tax reform, public safety, technology, environment — to weigh in. These are their insights:

Carolyn Berndt (Program Director, Sustainability)

While the president mentioned “we have ended the war on beautiful clean coal,” there was no mention of climate change — nor a recognition of it as a threat to national security and America’s cities. While NLC supports an “all of the above” strategy, we know that cities are turning more and more to renewable energy as a means of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Not only are cities leading the way on climate mitigation, they are committed to meeting the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement, and doing so in partnership with states, businesses and universities.

Cities are demonstrating leadership and innovation on climate mitigation and adaptation at the local level because cities are on the front lines when it comes to feeling the impacts of climate change. Whether extreme weather, flooding and droughts, or wildfires, the impacts on residents, businesses and the economy simply can’t be ignored. While cities are prepared to forge ahead even in the absence of federal support, we know that if we stand united on these issues, we can make change that will resonate for generations.

Angelina Panettieri (Principal Associate, Technology and Communications)

The State of the Union was long on stories, and thin on policy details — especially pertaining to infrastructure. Cities should expect the White House narrative that has existed this year so far to continue: no proposals that generate new funds directed to infrastructure, but a heavy focus on streamlining.

For cities, infrastructure streamlining will be a double-edged sword. Many cities have criticized existing grant or other programs for having unwieldy application and reporting compliance processes that sometimes outweigh the benefit of the federal investment. However, when looking at traditionally privately-owned communications infrastructure (including broadband), “streamlining” is a concept that could harm cities, if it is translated into federal and state preemption of local land use policies, provider negotiations, and fee and rate structures. Sweeping streamlining of these local powers may simply remove marginal costs for private companies, while doing little or nothing to incentivize buildout of affordable broadband in underserved communities.

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Brian Egan (Principal Associate, Finance, Administration and Intergovernmental Relations)

Unsurprisingly, President Trump touted the passage of the tax bill — which remains the biggest legislative move of the 115th Congress so far. It is true that the bill will increase the number of Americans claiming the standard deduction, but it fell short of the sort of simplification and tax relief originally promised.

The real story behind tax reform is how local elected officials from around the nation activated to successfully fight to ensure many city priorities were preserved in tax reform, including municipal and private activity bonds, as well as a number of key tax credits that spur development. There is still work, however, to be done to make sure the federal tax code respects local decision making and provides cities with all the tools in the toolbox, especially as we move onto infrastructure.

Stephanie Martinez-Ruckman (Program Director, Human Development)

The [resident briefly turned to workforce development halfway through his speech noting his desire to help “every American to know the dignity of a hard day’s work” and to “invest in workforce development and training.” NLC agrees that such an investment in workforce development and training is critical, especially as it pertains to any infrastructure investment by Congress. The details of what this investment would look like was limited to the mention of increased vocational schools. We urge Congress to think more broadly about workforce development and training to ensure that we are bridging the skills gap and ensuring a diverse and skilled workforce that is prepared for the jobs of the future.

The president also discussed his four-pillar priorities for immigration reform, which include increased investments in border security, ending extended-family chain migration, eliminating the visa lottery system and addressing a legislative fix to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. NLC has long-standing policy calling for comprehensive immigration reform and we look forward to working with Congress and the Administration as they work towards a final piece of legislation. Last week, when President Trump first released his list of principles, NLC released a statement highlighting these priorities and a desire for a final package that strengthens both enforcement of current immigration laws and worksite enforcement but also provides increased capacity for foreign nationals to obtain legal authorization for temporary visas or legal permanent residency. Cities are on the front lines of this issue from nearly every angle — from law enforcement to economic impact to their communities.

Michael Wallace (Program Director, Community and Economic Development)

President Trump weighed into the current debate over federal spending levels by strongly urging Congress to approve a larger budget for national defense. It’s notable that the president did not call for a larger budget overall — nor did he take Congress to task for the recent government shutdown.

For city leaders, there was nothing in the State of the Union to indicate a general change in direction from the previous White House budget proposal, which sought significant reductions in domestic spending overall and the complete elimination of specific city priorities like the CDBG program. The only exception may be programs that complement the administration’s infrastructure goals, such as the apprenticeship programs the president referenced in the speech, despite recommending those same programs for a cut last year.

The president did not directly address housing affordability, but we can speculate based on his remarks about the recently enacted package of tax cuts. He touted the tax cuts foremost as a benefit for the middle and working class. Congressional supporters of the tax bill are generally on message with the President. If the availability of affordable housing continues to shrink, it could potentially mute or derail the economic gains that result from tax reform and/or any new jobs resulting from a potential infrastructure package. That’s something Congress probably should not ignore.

Yucel Ors (Program Director, Public Safety)

At one key moment, the president said, “to everyone still recovering in Texas, Florida, Louisiana, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, everywhere, we are with you, we love you, and we always will pull through together, always.” However, there were no specifics on what the administration is doing to help cities in these states recover from the disaster. NLC is concerned that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) this week announced that they are suspending food and water delivery to cities in Puerto Rico. In addition, we are concerned that Congress has not appropriated additional disaster assistance funding to help many the cities devastated by last year’s hurricanes, floods and wildfires. We call on Congress to pass and emergency supplemental appropriations for disaster relief as soon as possible.

In addition to helping these communities recover from 2017 disasters, NLC is urging Congress and the administration to allow local governments the ability to use federal infrastructure funding to mitigate loses from future large scale natural disasters. Infrastructure investments in disaster mitigation will reduce the potential for loss of life and the rising costs of disasters response and recovery efforts.

President Trump also said, “My administration is committed to fighting the [opioid] drug epidemic and helping get treatment for those in need.” While the president declared the opioid epidemic as a national health crises in late 2017, the administration has taken little action since then. We urge that the administration use its authority under the emergency declaration to provide additional assistance to local governments to combat opioid abuse. We also urge the [resident to quickly submit a name to head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy and ensure that his FY 2018 budget, this office is adequately funded to help our cities fight heroin and opioid addiction.

Interested in federal advocacy for city and town priorities? Raise your voice in Washington at the Congressional City Conference, March 11-14 at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel. Learn more.