INSIDE WASHINGTON/Check signing time
Congress returns from its summer vacation to face a full slate of unresolved matters, including the approval of spending measures for the 2004 fiscal year and the reauthorization of a massive highway bill. Local government leaders rely on the appropriations bills to pay for essential services, ranging from healthcare and homeland security to public transit.
Local leaders are urging Congress to approve the 13 spending bills by the Oct. 1 deadline. “[These funds] need to be appropriated so people can plan, agencies can plan and counties can plan for the coming year,” says Dallas County, Texas, Commissioner Kenneth Mayfield.
Last year, only two of the 13 spending bills were passed by the deadline, and the final vote on the remaining 11 bills took place on Jan. 23. The delay forced cities and counties to continue operating at 2002 funding levels for the first quarter of this fiscal year.
The scenario is unlikely to happen this year, but there is talk on Capitol Hill that the political rift that exists between the two parties might slow the passage of the spending bills until late November — six weeks into the 2004 fiscal year. “We are hoping they will be able to hit the ground running when they get back and not get stymied by the partisanship,” says Jeff Arnold, deputy legislative director for the Washington, D.C.-based National Association of Counties.
So far, the House has approved 11 spending bills, while the Senate has passed only four. No spending bills have been signed into law.
Local officials are seeking increases or at least level funding for domestic programs, especially for homeland security costs. The House and Senate both have approved different homeland security measures. For example, the Senate has earmarked $250 million more than the House to establish grants to help urban areas that are considered vulnerable to terrorism. Meanwhile, the House has set aside $600 million more than the Senate for basic formula grants to help pay for homeland security costs. Local leaders hope the final bill will include the Senate’s urban area figure and the House’s basic formula grant number.
The first major battle in the Senate this month is going to be over the Labor, Health and Human Services (HHS) and Education appropriations bill, with Democrats and Republicans locking horns over spending on issues such as education and healthcare. Democrats, though, vow to try to increase spending for domestic programs by adding amendments to the Labor-HHS legislation and the remaining spending bills. “This administration has under-funded a number of key priorities for state and local governments,” says Jim Manley, a spokesman for Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. “Throughout the remaining weeks of the session, Senate Democrats are going to fight to increase funding for education, healthcare and homeland security.”
Still, one local official says Congress and the White House should do more than pay lip service to the needs of local governments. “Overall they are not going in a direction that helps the neighborhoods and cities,” says Elizabeth, N.J., Mayor J. Christian Bollwage. “They talk a good game; they show up for photo-ops; they hug the firemen and the policemen, but they are not providing the real dollars necessary to make cities safe.”
The author is Washington correspondent for American City & County.