In his State of the Union address Tuesday night, President Barack Obama laid out a broad and aggressive second-term agenda that could result in more federal aid to state and local governments for infrastructure, job training, energy and education efforts.
“Ask any CEO where they'd rather locate and hire, a country with deteriorating roads and bridges or one with high-speed rail and Internet, high-tech schools, self-healing power grids,” Obama said. “Tonight, I propose a ‘Fix-It-First’ program to put people to work as soon as possible on our most urgent repairs, like the nearly 70,000 structurally deficient bridges across the country.”
Along with road repairs, Obama also challenged states to combine job creation with energy-efficient construction projects.
”Those states with the best ideas to create jobs and lower energy bills by constructing more efficient buildings will receive federal support to help make that happen. America's energy sector is just one part of an aging infrastructure badly in need of repair,” Obama said.
“We’re excited [about] the president’s focus on infrastructure. We understand it’s going to be tough climb, but it’s essential to getting our economy restarted,” said Matthew Chase, executive director of the National Association of Counties.
The president also announced a new education initiative focused on expanding early childhood education.
“Most middle-class parents can't afford a few hundred bucks a week for private preschool. And for poor kids who need help the most, this lack of access to preschool education can shadow them for the rest of their lives,” Obama said. “I propose working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every single child in America.”
Obama didn't specify how he would work with states to accomplish this new goal, though he did mention Race to the Top, his administration's high-profile grant program that gives money to states and school districts that promise certain reforms, such as permitting new charter schools to be established. It wasn’t clear if the universal preschool plan would use the same approach.
“We’re not opposed to incentive money and new tools, but what we’re not looking for is more unfunded mandates,” Chase said, referring to mandates where counties end up paying for early childhood learning starting at birth for disabled children.
The president’s calls for comprehensive immigration reform, one of the most contentious topics in Congress this session, drew praise from local government groups, including the National League of Cities (NLC) and the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
”The current system unduly burdens local governments to the detriment of our nation’s cities,“ said NLC President Marie Lopez Rogers, who is also the mayor of Avonale, Ariz.
“Comprehensive immigration reform is needed to allow cities to work at integrating immigrants into the fabric of our communities," Rogers said.
The National Association of Counties support comprehensive immigration reform efforts by the White House and Congress, according to Chase, in part because counties spend billions of dollars each year on health care, corrections and enforcement related to illegal immigrants.
Obama also promised to target federal resources at public safety, education and housing for the 20 towns hit hardest by poverty.
One idea Obama didn’t propose that would have affected state budgets was cuts to Medicaid or the new insurance subsidies included in the Affordable Care Act.
Obama cited several local programs as models for expansion in his second term, including a collaboration in Brooklyn between New York City public schools, the City University of New York and IBM that enables students to graduate with a high school diploma and an associate's degree in computers or engineering. He also mentioned a public-private partnership in Youngstown, Ohio, where a manufacturing innovation institute is training new workers how to do 3-D printing. He even pointed to the 19 states that have raised the minimum wage in the last few years and asked Congress to raise the minimum wage for a full-time worker from $7.25 to $9 per hour.
Finally, he reiterated his support for stricter gun-control laws, such as requiring criminal background checks for any gun sale and a ban on military-style assault weapons with high-capacity ammunition clips. Some states, such as New York and California, already have versions of those regulations, though most do not.
In an emotional plea for action by Congress, Obama gestured to surviving family members or victims of gun violence who attended the speech.
“Each of these proposals deserves a vote in Congress. If you want to vote no, that's your choice,” Obama said. “The families of Oak Creek, and Tucson, and Blacksburg, and the countless other communities ripped open by gun violence, they deserve a simple vote."
Citing the need to reduce daily firearm-related violence in cities across the country, the U.S. Conference of Mayors has lobbied the White House and Congress this year to pass new laws that would stop the easy access to guns by those who cannot legally possess them. The group's president, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, released a statement praising Obama's speech, including the call for new gun laws.
Read the president's full speech here, and view a word cloud of the address below: