The $800 Billion Question: What Do Cities Want?

So the situation's bad and the priorities are varied. But for the public officials and industry leaders gathered at GOVERNING's Outlook in the ...
by | February 3, 2009

Borut So the situation's bad and the priorities are varied. But for the public officials and industry leaders gathered at GOVERNING's Outlook in the States and Localities conference today, there was one big question on everyone's minds: What are cities looking for from the federal government?

If there's one basic answer to that question, it seems to be this: a relationship. "What the new administration needs to understand is that the intergovernmental system -- the local, state, federal interaction -- has unraveled over the last 20 years," said Don Borut, the executive director of the National League of Cities. "You can't pin [the blame] on any one administration. It just simply hasn't been working."

Borut said what he's looking for above all else is for localities to be given a seat at the policy table. "There has to be early engagement from state and local governments with those who are making federal policy. They have to understand that state and local governments are a partner [with the federal government]. We're not a constituent looking for a handout."

Of course cities are carefully watching as the estimated $800 billion federal surplus package is debated on Capitol Hill. But as much as localities are anticipating economic windfalls from the surplus in areas such as transportation and green jobs, some local leaders cautioned against including too much.

"They need to make sure they are very, very careful about lumping everything into the stimulus," said Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper. "Extending jobless benefits, increasing food aid and Medicaid funding -- those are all important goals, and we should talk about them. But to try to cram them all under the heading of 'stimulus' is going to make the public feel angry and victimized." The stimulus plan, he said, must remain tightly focused only on those initiatives that will kickstart the economy.

And the federal government can't sign a stimulus check and simply expect it to be spent immediately, said Chris Cushing, the representative in Washington for the interests of Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix. "We never want to look a gift horse in the mouth, but at the end of the day, a lot of the implementation of the stimulus is going to fall on the shoulders of state and local government."

Congress is still debating the terms of the stimulus, but lawmakers will likely require that the money be spent within a very short timetable, probably 90 to 120 days. "It's going to be very hard for us to do that," Cushing said.

Still, he said he's optimistic about the relationship the Obama administration seems to be cultivating with states and localities. "We are no longer seen as problems that need to be dealt with. We're seen as partners. That's a sea change, and that's a good thing."

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