INSIDE WASHINGTON/Battling over bucks
Local leaders and their top Washington, D.C., lobbyists are poring over President Bush’s 2005 budget request line by line this month to assess which legislative battles need to be fought over the next year. However, after hearing the president’s State of the Union address last month, many city and county leaders say Bush offered them little hope that he plans to make fiscal relief for local governments a centerpiece of his annual legislative budget request. “It is like cities are forgotten as far as the president’s message,” says Las Vegas, Nev., Mayor Oscar Goodman.
Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick claims the speech showed that Bush is out of touch with everyday people who are concerned about issues ranging from economic development to infrastructure and health care needs. Instead, Kilpatrick says that Bush’s speech promoted “issues of division” such as outlawing gay marriage.
“It was extremely broad and unfocused for where America is right now,” says Kilpatrick. “The president was describing a different America [from the one] I see every day.”
Karen Miller, a Boone County, Mo., Commissioner and president of the Washington, D.C.-based National Association of Counties, says she heard both a promising proposal and a potentially devastating idea in Bush’s speech. She praises the president for recognizing the need to create a program to help newly released prisoners acclimate themselves back into society. That is particularly important to counties, because they are responsible for maintaining the community jails that are dangerously overcrowded in many areas. “Helping the inmate population fit back into society is something I think we can work together on,” says Miller.
But Bush’s call for making his tax cuts permanent worries her because she says it forces local governments to increase taxes. “Tax cuts are fine, but government has a responsibility to provide services,” she says. “It is nice to be able, at the national level, to say we are going to give you a tax cut, but on the local level you then have to turn around and put a tax increase on the ballot.”
The challenge for city and county leaders now is to map out a strategy to convince the federal government to help them stop the financial hemorrhaging that has been exacerbated by homeland security responsibilities. Even though local leaders now are just learning the details of the 2005 budget, the lobbying began last month. Seeking to capitalize on Bush’s Jan. 20 address, the National League of Cities (NLC) and United States Conference of Mayors, both Washington, D.C.-based associations, released separate but similar legislative agendas, ranging from increasing the funding for homeland security to investing in the nation’s aging infrastructure.
Still, it will take weeks to assess the president’s budget and then determine if Congress will challenge him on his requests to reduce funding for some domestic programs they deem critical. “The devil is going to be in the details,” says Arlington, Mass., Selectman Charles Lyons, who also is the NLC’s president. “Hopefully, we will work with the administration and both parties in Congress to see if the meat and potatoes that we count on to run our basic services at the local level will be protected.”
The author is Washington correspondent for American City & County.