Politics

Mayors Talk Inequality, Climate Change, Open Internet

The U.S. Conference of Mayors backed resolutions aimed at preserving equal access to the Internet, reducing income inequality and slowing climate change at the group's annual conference in Dallas.
by | June 23, 2014
Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, left, sits as Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, the president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, makes remarks during the group's annual meeting June 20 in Dallas. AP/Tony Gutierrez
 

The U.S. Conference of Mayors backed actions that would potentially prevent Internet fast lanes for businesses that can afford them, capping off an annual meeting Monday that also focused on combating inequality and climate change.

The resolution is a call for President Barack Obama and Congress to give federal regulators the power to continue the long-time policy of requiring Internet service providers to give equal access to their networks. The idea, called “net neutrality,” first came under threat after a U.S. appeals court ruled that the Federal Communications Commission doesn’t have the authority to enforce the neutrality policy on broadband networks because the networks are not classified as telecommunications services.

Since then, the FCC has proposed a new rule that would allow broadband providers to charge businesses such as Google and Netflix to provide faster service. Supporters argue net neutrality is essential to stimulating competition, while others say it doesn’t truly exist today and advocates are better off focusing on the lack of competition between broadband providers. The rule will go into effect after a public comment period if the FCC doesn’t amend it and Congress doesn’t act to broaden the agency's authority.

“The window for mayoral advocacy is closing as decisions are being made for how this technology will roll out in our communities,” said Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt of Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

The charge among mayors has been led by San Francisco’s Ed Lee and Seattle’s Ed Murray, both of whom have sent letters to fellow mayors and drafted op-ed pieces. “The Internet has thrived because of its openness and equality of access,” they wrote in their letter. “Its level playing field is its core principle. The open Internet gives anyone with a big idea a real chance to compete.”

Advocates for net neutrality say mayors who are serious about the issue can act around the FCC by creating alternatives to the major broadband providers through municipal wireless networks. In most places there’s only one option for high-speed broadband, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, but many cities are sitting atop miles of fiber optic cables that could be wired to create more choices for consumers. Some cities and states, though, have passed laws supported by companies like Comcast that effectively prevent localities from stepping in the game.

Resolutions from the U.S. Conference of Mayors are official policy positions, something akin to a party platform. But they don't require a unanimous vote and the Conference doesn't single out members for inaction.

Also taking center stage at the conference was the issue of inequality. Mayors supported a resolution calling for an increase to the federal minimum wage, but they also announced a task force, chaired by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, to explore solutions beyond wage hikes.

“We’re not asking for help in fighting inequality out of some sense of local privilege,” de Blasio said. “We’re doing it because not only do we have to solve the problems of our people, we have to help this nation avert the crisis that will come if we don’t address these problems and if our cities remain unsupported, since we are more and more the economic engines and core for this country.”

Cities have already been taking a leading role on wage increases. Recently Seattle set a new minimum at $15 an hour, the nation’s highest rate. De Blasio, like some other mayors, is pushing for a minimum wage increase in his city, but he’s also secured money for universal pre-kindergarten and wants to massively expand affordable housing, which has emerged as a key area of focus in the inequality debate. A 12-year property tax exemption for some new affordable housing units in Seattle has been singled out for praise among some academics who argue cities have tools at their disposal, even if they’re more limited than those of federal policymakers.

At the conference mayors also broadened their 2005 climate change agreement to support the Environmental Protection Agency’s efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions at power plants and a host of new efforts at the local level. Those include reducing vehicle fleets and making them more fuel-efficient as well as creating energy from recovered waste water.

But the Conference also urged flexibility for meeting the EPA's new targets and recommended the creation of a billion-dollar fund for investments in local initiatives to prepare for rising sea levels and more severe natural disasters. Obama has already pitched such a plan, and New York City is already proceeding with its own proposal.

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