City Leaders Meet in D.C. to Debate Federal Policy

Last week, over 150 mayors and council members gathered in the nation's capital as part of the National League of Cities annual summer policy forum to discuss a wide range of federal policy issues of significance to cities and towns. The mayors and council members, who are members of one of NLC's seven policy committees, considered a wide range of issues including cybersecurity, the Community Development Block Grant program, voter identification laws, community resiliency in light of climate change, the new surface transportation law - MAP 21, the taxation of digital goods, the development of the nation's first public safety broadband network, and implementation of the Affordable Health Care Act to name just a few. 

NLC President Marie Lopez Rogers, mayor, Avondale, Ariz., and NLC Executive Director Clarence Anthony, welcomed the group to Washington, D.C, during an opening plenary session that also featured an update on NLC's strategic planning process from 2B Communications, an NLC consultant.

Following the plenary session, the participants met in individual steering committee meetings for educational sessions with policy experts and to formulate federal policy positions that will be considered by the membership at NLC's Congress of Cities in Seattle, Wash., in November. If adopted by the organization's membership, these positions will become a part of NLC's National Municipal Policy and will form the basis of the organization's advocacy on Capitol Hill and before the Administration.

The following are highlights of the Steering Committee meetings:

Finance, Administration and Intergovernmental Relations Committee (FAIR)

Continuing a discussion that began last March at the 2013 Congressional Cities Conference on the impact voter identification laws can have on municipal elections, the Committee approved a new resolution calling on the federal government to block laws that suppress or disenfranchise the right to vote. "It's important for our constituents to have trust in elections as well as a clear right to vote," said FAIR Chair Robert Avery, council member, Gadsden, Ala. The Committee also considered and voted to renew seven resolutions, including ones calling for a balanced approach to reducing the federal deficit; urging local participation in the decision making process involving post office closures; supporting passage of the Marketplace Fairness Act, and updating the resolution calling for repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) to reflect the Supreme Court's decision last week to strike down the 1996 law that prohibited federal recognition of same-sex marriage.

Community and Economic Development Committee (CED)

The CED Committee met under the leadership of Chair Tony Thomas, council chair, Savannah, Geo., and Vice-Chair Priscilla Tyson, council member, Columbus, Oh. In a session on regional cooperation, Committee members heard from Emmett Jordan, council member, Greenbelt, Md., who briefed the group on the operations of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments in which his jurisdiction participates, and Mary H. Hayes, Arlington County, Va., Board Member and Vice-Chair of the Region Forward Coalition. Both agreed that regional cooperation could help mitigate the challenges associated with federal spending cuts.

Sheila Crowley, Executive Director of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, gave a presentation on the value of the mortgage interest deduction but Committee did not endorse any alternative to the mortgage interest deduction. Lastly, Stan Gimont, Director of the Office of Block Grant Assistance, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, joined the group to explore options for improving the effectiveness with federal policy makers of the CDBG program.

The Committee began considering a resolution referred to it by the National Black Caucus of Local Elected Officials on job creation and economic diversification in film, television, and digital media and will continue its work on the resolution over the summer. The Committee also approved an amendment to a resolution urging the federal government to expand the use of Harbor Maintenance Trust Funds to include land based infrastructure improvements important to ports, as well as the currently authorized use of dredging for shallow water ports.

Transportation and Infrastructure Services Committee (TIS)

Over its day and a half of meetings, the TIS Committee, led by Mayor Ron Roberts, Temecula, Calif., discussed key transportation issues and challenges facing cities across the nation. Following a Senate staff briefing on plans for reauthorization of federal transportation programs, the Committee joined the Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Steering Committee to hear how the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) is implementing the current surface transportation law and how city officials can get involved in the development of department policy.

Three presenters from the federal government provided a wealth of information on how the law known as "MAP 21" will impact cities and towns. Federal Transit Administration Deputy Administrator Therese McMillan outlined changes in MAP 21 and highlighted a new approach known as State of Good Repair that will be used in deciding on future federal investments in transit systems at all levels of government. McMillan acknowledged the importance of this new approach when she said, as a nation we cannot just build new transit systems, "we must maintain what we continue transit's contribution to community vitality."

Department of Transportation (DOT) Deputy Assistant Secretary for Intergovernmental Affairs Joanna Turner urged local officials to help DOT identify the best approach on another MAP 21 initiative, performance measures for calculating improvements on congestion management. Noting that the federal government has no standard way to measure congestion that accurately portrays the different circumstances in communities across the nation, Turner noted that the Department is looking for examples of ways communities are measuring congestion and would welcome any examples as DOT moves forward developing its measures.

Also speaking to the TIS Committee was former Mayor John Robert Smith, CEO of Reconnecting America. He urged local officials to get involved in the federal debate on the future of Amtrak, the nation's passenger rail system, currently taking place in the House of Representatives. "Help Congress understand the value of passenger rail in your hometown, " said Smith. "Identify what makes Amtrak so valuable; be it business travel, affordable transportation, how seniors stay connected to their families or the value of rail stations as hubs of economic vitality." (Please contact Leslie Wollack at if you want to get involved in the Amtrak discussions.)

In a joint session with the TIS and Community and Economic Development (CED) Committees, Samara Berend, Vice President for Strategic Development at AECOM, briefed committee members on the growing use of public private partnerships for local investments. Berend walked the committees through elements of public private partnerships and key pitfalls to avoid.

Environment, Energy and Natural Resources Committee (EENR)

With a focus on climate adaptation and resiliency, the EENR Committee, chaired by Mayor Matt Appelbaum, Boulder, Colo., discussed how cities can best prepare their communities for the effects of climate change, natural disasters and extreme weather. Nancy Sutley, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, shared with the Committee the ways in which the federal government is taking action to address climate change and supporting local governments that take action to address climate change by providing research, information and technical assistance. Sutley also added that the President's Climate Action Plan calls for establishing a short term taskforce of state, local and tribal leaders to advise the federal government on ways to better support local preparedness efforts, including removing barriers to long-term investments and modernizing loans programs. In another presentation, Lumay Wang from the office of Representative Scott Peters (D-CA), updated Committee on the Strengthening the Resiliency of Our Nation on the Ground (STRONG) Act, which NLC supports and which would aid local resiliency efforts.

In other business, the Committee considered the effects of climate change on the transportation sector, hearing from the Federal Highway Administration and the American Association of State Highway Officials on how adaptation and resiliency can and is factored into transportation planning at the state and regional levels, including vulnerability assessments and a climate resilient pilot program. Additionally, the EENR committee met jointly with the TIS committee on MAP 21 implementation, with a key concern being how the next transportation authorization bill can support transportation alternatives, such as transit, walking and biking, that will also help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. (See TIS)

Human Development Committee (HD)

The Human Development Steering Committee meeting, chaired by Dot LaMarche, vice mayor, Farragut, Tenn., began with an update on efforts to reauthorize the Workforce Investment Act (WIA). According to Scott Cheney, from the office of Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee will likely adopt a reauthorization bill that will maintain and strengthen local control and continue workforce programs that the House bill calls for eliminating. In his presentation to the Committee, Dr. Paul Etkind of the National Association of City and County Health Organizations (NAACHO) argued for strong local health departments and urged local officials to fully support local health departments, noting that they are essential to helping communities respond to newly emerging micro-organisms, especially those that jump from animals to humans. The topics and featured speakers for other educational sessions at the HD meeting included:

  • implementation of the Affordable Care Act and NLC's partnership with the U.S. Department of Health and Human to help educate local officials on different aspects of the new law (Paul Dioguardi, Director of Intergovernmental Affairs, HHS);
  • effective strategies for addressing the ongoing health crisis among people of color resulting from HIV/AIDS (Kali Lindsey, National Minority Aids Council);
  • effective strategies for cities and towns to help their aging population age in place (Sandy Markwood, National Association of Area Agencies on Aging); and
  • helping women veterans - who have the highest rates of homelessness and unemployment -- return to their communities (Department of Labor's Women's Bureau representatives). 

As part of its meeting, the Committee adopted two new resolutions; one calling on the federal government to provide resources to cities and towns to help women veterans return to their communities and lead productive lives and the second, opposing congressional efforts to eliminate funding for federal census data. The Committee also approved a recommendation calling on NLC to host a dialogue for city officials on race and the role of race in America.

Public Safety and Crime Prevention Committee (PSCP)

The PSCP Committee, chaired by Pete Constant, council member, San Jose, Calif., focused on the national public safety broadband network in a joint session with the Information Technology and Communications (ITC) Committee, cybersecurity, and an all hazards approach to emergency response.

In the joint session, PSCP Vice Chair Scott Somers, council member, Mesa, Ariz., updated the groups on the status of the development of the national public safety broadband network. Somers described the initial efforts of the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) and encouraged committee members to coordinate with state officials on preliminary plans for development of the nation's interoperable first responder communications system.

In his presentation, Mitch Herckis, Director of Government Affairs, National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO), warned that threats to local government information systems are one of the most significant security issues of our time with public networks under attack and vital records at risk. To help guard against the threats, Herckis provided local officials with several resources including questions to ask and encouraged them to reach out to the federal government's Multi-State Information and Analysis Center for assistance.

According to Ken Mallette, Executive Director, Maryland Emergency Management Agency, and National Emergency Management Association representative, local governments should continue to anticipate cuts in federal funding for emergency assistance. Besides advocating for these programs at the federal level, he also, in his presentation, reminded local governments of the importance of planning for all hazards based on a risk assessment, and not just the last disaster.

Following an update from Scott Santoro, Program Manager, Strategic Training Development, Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, on the Blue Campaign to fight human trafficking in local communities, the Committee approved a recommendation to be forwarded to NLC to partner with DHS on a national campaign to raise awareness of this issue, which is becoming increasingly prevalent in smaller communities.

For its fall meeting, the Committee will consider amendments to policy statements on illegal guns and human trafficking; updated resolutions on cybersecurity and the national public safety broadband network; and will continue its consideration of policy on emergency medical services.

Information Technology and Communications Committee (ITC)

The ITC Committee, chaired by Larry Kitchens, council member, Hurst, Tex., discussed legislation that would preempt local taxing authority of digital goods, such as downloaded music, movies and online services like photo storage and payroll processing. The Committee heard differing perspectives from Michael Mazerov, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, and Rob Atkinson, president and founder of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, on the need for the legislation. While both speakers agreed the marketplace could benefit from national standards, Mazerov questioned the scope of the proposed legislation in light of potential unintended consequences he illustrated. 

With its longstanding interest in increasing access to broadband, the ITC Committee also explored several recent initiatives, including Congresswoman Doris Matsui's (D-CA) introduction of legislation to expand deployment of broadband, the Federal Communications Commission's Lifeline program, and ConnectED, a White House initiative promoted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Utilities Service. The Committee also reviewed resolutions calling for universal availability of broadband and supporting community and municipal broadband networks.