INSIDE WASHINGTON/Locals eye Congress as session wanes
With Washington lawmakers racing to close the book on the 106th Congress, local government officials are keeping an eye on Capitol Hill to make sure key projects are not slashed. Those officials are particularly interested in the appropriations bills.
Each year the White House and Congress battle over a handful of the bills and, after months of foot-dragging, they come to the table in autumn to try and strike a deal. When that happens, key local government programs run the risk of falling victim to last-minute backroom politicking.
“We are worried about it because we know very well that $4 billion or $5 billion [earmarked for local government programs] can go somewhere else, and no one [will be held] accountable for it,” says Tom Cochran, executive director of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
Even as local government leaders are watching to make sure cities and counties receive their fair share of federal dollars, they also must make sure that legislation they do not like is not enacted.
Currently, one concern is the Religious Liberties Act, a bill that would allow churches to circumvent local zoning laws. For most of the year, it appeared the bill was going nowhere, but it found new life right before Congress adjourned for its month-long August recess and could be placed on a fast track this month.
Additionally, the Internet tax moratorium, loathed by local government officials, could resurface as the session wanes. “All the bets are off,” says Jeff Arnold, deputy legislative director for the National Association of Counties. “Virtually anything that hasn’t passed to date has a chance [of passing].”
Cochran says his organization already is disappointed that federal dollars for summer youth programs were cut and wants to make sure that the COPS program, which helps local governments hire new police officers, does not suffer a similar fate. Preserving and enhancing inner-city parks, too, will be a top priority for the USCM, he says.
On the county side, officials are closely watching the Labor-Health and Human Services appropriations bill. That bill contains a provision for a $2.3 billion windfall that would help pay for social service programs provided by counties. But the version passed by the House provided just $1.7 billion, and the Senate-approved measure ponied up only $600 million. Arnold surmises that the final figure will be closer to the House version, but he laments that it still falls far short of the full funding.
Cameron Whitman, director of policy and federal relations for the National League of Cities, says the NLC is following a handful of issues, notably programs providing for local law enforcement block grants and social services block grants. Whitman says she is disappointed in Congress because several tax cuts passed this year could take money away from critical programs such as Medicare reform. The NLC leadership also believes that tax-cut money would be put to better use if it were used to pay down the national debt.
Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) agrees with Whitman that it makes practical sense to pay down the debt before offering up large tax cuts. Voinovich, a former Cleveland mayor, bucked the Republican leadership this year by voting against the tax cuts. “If we don’t get the national debt down in 10 years, about 72 percent of the budget is going to be used for entitlements,” he warns.
But in this highly charged political year, Voinovich says he does not think local officials need to worry too much about being shortchanged in this round of appropriations. “Everybody is trying to make everybody happy,” he says.