Tired of Tin-Cup Politics

A new group of urban leaders wants a strategy based on success, not on pleading for help.
May 2005
By Jonathan Walters  |  Senior Editor
A Senior Editor of Governing, Jonathan has been covering state and local public policy and administration for more than 30 years.

The local government lobby hasn't been winning on many big issues in Washington lately, and so it is worth noting the success of their full-court press this spring that staved off elimination of a favorite program, Community Development Block Grants.

The win is worth noting, that is, with a caveat. The locals may have won this battle, but they still risk losing the war if they continue to expend immense amounts of energy fighting for dwindling federal grant programs based on the insistent refrain that urban America might come apart at the seams if the money disappears.

The CDBG preservation campaign was prompted by President Bush's proposed FY 2006 budget, under which the program was slated to disappear, folded in with 17 other economic and community development grant programs earmarked for local government. The new block grant was to have been transferred out of the Department of Housing and Urban Development and moved to the less urban-minded Department of Commerce.

Local officials were able to persuade Congress to come to the rescue, after a fashion. Budget resolutions in the House and Senate restored CDBG grants as a discreet, HUD-controlled program, with the Senate putting back all the money and the House restoring the program at about one-quarter of its $4.7 billion 2005 level. As of early April, the differences still had to be ironed out.

What the cities seem to be chasing, though, is not so much the money but the symbolism of a flagship federal grant program. Which is why CDBG has survived, at least this time. It is the last remaining program that indicates some direct, if vestigial, federal-local connection. It is almost as if Congress took pity on local governments and gave them back their money.

Indeed, the spectacle of the local lobby rising up to protect CDBGs is reminiscent of a fight more than two decades ago to save General Revenue Sharing, a losing battle joined by both state and local officials.

It's a fight worth remembering because it prompted a notable backlash among some members of the local government lobby. Led by former Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist, a small (and decidedly unpopular) band of public officials called the grant-seeking strategy "tin cup" federalism and argued that it was demeaning and ineffective. If cities couldn't step up and demonstrate their own value and viability, then lobbying in Washington for cash assistance would always be a game of diminishing returns.

And so it has proved to be. Even if municipalities salvage all their CDBGs, the fact is that the federal government is in a long-running local aid squeeze. The federal contribution to city revenues has dwindled from 12 percent to a mere 4 percent in the past 30 years, according to municipal finance expert Michael A. Pagano, of the University of Illinois at Chicago.

In light of this, it is interesting to note the formation of a new group of mayors committed to an updated message about urban America. Called the "New Cities Project," it is not as radical as Norquist's band from the '80s nor as inclined to break away from the mother ship of municipal lobbying, the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

Nevertheless, the project is saying some interesting things. Its creators, led by Dave Cieslewicz, the mayor of Madison, Wisconsin, insist that cities on their own are coming up with innovative and successful policies all the time and ought to project a public image based on those successes, not on the need for federal help.

Currently, New Cities has held only one meeting, drawing 10 mayors from places as disparate as Camden, New Jersey; Berkeley, California; Scranton, Pennsylvania; and Salt Lake City. But the group seems determined to be a presence in upcoming debates over urban America. Their next meeting is slated for June 9 in Chicago, dovetailing with the U.S. Conference of Mayors' annual meeting there.

Hopefully, the setting (far from Washington) and the timing (when a whole lot of mayors will be in town) will offer a significant opportunity to contemplate the New Cities' view. That's because Norquist was right 15 years ago and Cieslewicz is right this time: Banging on a tin cup is ultimately a losing strategy for American cities.