Preparing for battle
As the United States Congress begins tackling its legislative agenda for 2006, state and local leaders are preparing to play defense against possible cost shifts and preemptions in their authorities. The overall interest in 2006 will be to “just try to preserve what we have now,” says Jeff Arnold, deputy legislative director for the Washington-based National Association of Counties (NACo).
One main program cities and counties will try to preserve is the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program, which provides federal funds for local development projects. Last year, President Bush worked to end the grants, but Congress voted to preserve the program.
“CDBG is one that works and is worth keeping,” says James Hunt, councilman from Clarksburg, W.Va. “We will be vigilant if there are attempts to get rid of that program and will work like last year to save it.”
Hunt, who also is president of the Washington-based National League of Cities, says there have been some who want to use the CDBG program funds to rebuild the Gulf Coast region following the devastation from Hurricane Katrina last year. While he says the program’s money should be used for that purpose, it should not be at the expense of other cities in need of community development funds.
State and local leaders will continue to fight unfunded mandates, as well. At the current rate, Congress will spend more than $300 billion of state money over the next 10 years through unfunded mandates and cost shifts required to satisfy federal programs such as the No Child Left Behind Act and the Medicare prescription drug program, according to the Washington-based National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).
States will try to stop more cost shifts, says Michael Bird, NCSL’s federal affairs counsel, adding that they will pay particular attention to Congress’ discussions on reforming the No Child Left Behind Act, which is up for reauthorization in 2007. The states will fight the “enormous funding gaps in the legislation” and “a lot of substantive problems we have with the law,” Bird says.
Local and state leaders also are concerned about Congress’ effort to rewrite provisions of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. “Our role will be to make sure we have a seat at the table so that we can protect our authorities,” Hunt says. “We also need to protect equal access in all areas to that technology — both rural and urban.”
State and local leaders say there are several other issues they would like to address — from reforming the country’s immigration laws to reauthorizing the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families block grant — but they know that in an election year it is unlikely Congress will have time to move on all of them before the members return to the campaign trail.
While officials recognize they face a tough battle in getting the attention of Congress on several issues this year, some leaders see the elections having a positive effect. Congress is going to have “a tight schedule with a lot of nuances that might take away from the legislative agenda,” says Ed Rosado, legislative director at NACo. “That said, it’s also a year in which it is important for both sides to show accomplishments.”
The author is Washington correspondent for American City & County.