State, local lobbyists push to save programs from budget ax

State and local government officials are flooding Washington to lobby against spending cuts that they say fall disproportionately on domestic programs. 

In interviews with The Hill, lobbyists for state and local governments said they understand that the ballooning federal deficit is likely to reduce federal support for roadwork, law enforcement and affordable housing. 

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But they argue that the sacrifice needed to reduce the deficit should be shared across the board — including by Medicaid, Medicare and defense programs — and not just fall on domestic programs.

“You can’t really solve the deficit by just cutting discretionary, non-military spending. It is such a small part of the budget,” Larry Naake, executive director of the National Association of Counties (NACo), told The Hill. “You end up destroying programs that help a lot of people at the local level.”

The county officials’ group is meeting in Washington this week for its annual legislative conference. Close to 1,600 NACo members will be in town, and many are expected to lobby their home-state delegations about the budget cuts.

The group is concerned about the funding cuts in President Obama’s 2012 budget request and objects to the cuts passed by the House in February for the remainder of fiscal 2011. 

Nevertheless, Naake said NACo could support freezing domestic spending at fiscal 2010 levels.

“Once the [continuing resolution] is finished, we will have to start on the proposed budget next year. But it’s not as drastic as anything the House is proposing,” Naake said. “Share the pain across the board, not just with domestic programs.”

One of the biggest priorities of county officials will be protecting funding for Community Development Block Grants (CDBGs). NACo members are being encouraged to wear “Save CDBG” buttons on their suit lapels as they make the rounds on Capitol Hill. 

The Department of Housing and Urban Development runs the grant program, which helps local government officials fund affordable housing and anti-poverty programs as well as infrastructure development.

Under the House Republican continuing resolution, the grant program would be reduced from about $4 billion to $1.5 billion. Other programs that face funding reductions under the legislation are the federal transit program, which would go from $10.7 billion to $10.2 billion; the high-speed rail initiative, which would see its current $3.7 billion in funding wiped out; and community health center grants, which would be reduced by $1 billion.

Naake said the budget cuts would only lead to more unemployment during the tough economic times.

“The counties are already facing tremendous layoffs. This would just exacerbate the problem and increase unemployment even more in the public sector and lead to reduced services,” Naake said.

NACo won’t be the only local government officials group in town this month as Washington debates spending cuts. The National League of Cities is having its Congressional City Conference next week, and many of its estimated 1,200 attending members will likely lobby their lawmakers against budget cuts to domestic programs.

“It is perplexing to us that some of these programs we are highlighting are getting this kind of criticism. We think that’s because some members aren’t familiar with these programs that cities use to help their communities grow,” said Mike Wallace, a program director at the League.

The League also supports the CDBG program and the transportation surface reauthorization bill that Congress is expected to consider this year. To win lawmakers’ support, the group is asking its members to write letters to Congress in support of the grant program and demonstrate how vital federal funds are to local governments.

“We have asked them to bring in ‘before and after’ pictures of what they have done with federal funds in their hometowns,” Wallace said. “That will help members see what we are talking about.”

Lawmakers have been invited to see for themselves in person what federal funds have accomplished back home.

“We have been trying to take federal officials back home to show them program sites that are getting the job done,” Wallace said.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors was in Washington at the end of February to lobby to protect the community development block grants from the budget chopping block.

“There are other programs that are critical to cities that are also on the cut list, but we take great exception to the community development block grant,” Conference of Mayors President Elizabeth Kautz said during a news conference last month.

“This program was promulgated under President Richard Nixon. This program comes directly to cities for us to have control of the funds and to ensure that the funds are used for those folks who most need them. “

Kautz is mayor of the city of Burnsville, Minn. She said the Conference of Mayors would “educate” Congress about the effects of cutting the CDBG program, which she called devastating.

“Twelve percent of the entire federal budget is discretionary spending, and for the minuscule amount for this program, the good that it does has a tremendous impact for our communities,” Kautz said.

“As we see what has happened in the House, we see that our only hope is in the Senate,” Kautz said. “These drastic cuts are unacceptable to the mayors of America.”

The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), meanwhile, says it is not worried about any specific spending cuts as it prepares to hold a conference in Washington April 14 to 15. 

But the organization is urging Congress to conclude its fractious budget negotiations as quickly as possible, NCSL spokeswoman Megan Dorsch said.

“States need certainty as to what federal funds to ultimately expect for the current fiscal year as states address continuing fiscal and budget challenges,” NCSL President Richard Moore wrote to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).

“Most states are nearly three-quarters of the way through FY 2011, and several of them are moving toward adjournment and final action on their FY 2012 budgets. Given our time constraints and balanced-budget responsibilities, we urge you to resolve quickly any differences that may exist between the House and Senate or to otherwise maintain funding for state-federal programs at their FY 2010 levels,” Moore said.

However, “the federal deficit should not be exported to state and local governments through spending reductions alone that do not produce commensurate savings for states,” Moore, a state senator from Massachusetts, said in his letter to Boehner and Reid.

Like NACo and the League of Cities, Moore said NCSL is aware that some cuts are inevitable. But they should be done in a way that ensures state governments have flexibility from federal mandates.

“Reductions to programs that have enduring unfunded federal mandates like the No Child Left Behind Act would leave states with less funds and the same unfunded mandates,” Moore wrote.