Mayors descend on Washington to press for highway bill, fight program cuts

City officials from across the country are descending on Washington to lobby in favor of a highway bill and against cuts to local programs.

The National League of Cities is holding its annual Congressional City Conference, which begins Saturday and runs through Wednesday of next week. Roughly 2,000 mayors and city government officials will be in town, meeting with lawmakers and their aides to discuss their priorities.

Carolyn Coleman, the League's director of federal relations, said city officials are in Washington to impress upon lawmakers that budget cuts have real-world effects back home.

“The cuts are real, but it's important to be at the table. Decisions are going to be made with or without you," Coleman said. "So shake your head and take a seat at the table.”

Speakers at the League’s conference include Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, Sen. Mike EnziMichael (Mike) Bradley EnziMcConnell names Senate GOP tax conferees Live coverage: Senate Republicans pass tax bill The Hill's Whip List: Where Republicans stand on Senate tax bill MORE (R-Wyo.) and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter (D).

City officials will have four legislative priorities as they lobby lawmakers. Those include a multi-year surface transportation reauthorization bill; an online sales tax; maintaining federal funding for local programs; and reforming the No Child Left Behind Act and other programs that can help with workforce training.

Of particular concern to city officials will be preventing further cuts to Community Development Block Grants (CDBG), which is run by the Housing and Urban Development Department and helps with revitalizing neighborhoods and providing affordable housing. The League estimates the program’s federal funds have been cut by 25 percent over the past two years.

“When you take a program and you reduce it by 25 percent, that means there's a quarter less of activity there, a quarter less of economic growth that encourages private sector investment. It means it doesn't happen,” Coleman said.

Coleman said city officials are the best lobbyists their communities can have.

“We don't assume they will know how CDBG helps a local community. We don't assume that they will know how COPS works,” Coleman said. “City leaders are smart advocates and that's why they will bringing their stories to Washington and they will be increasingly bringing their stories to their congressman at home as well.”

COPS, or Community Oriented Policing Services, is a program run by the Justice Department that helps fund local law enforcement.

City officials will also be pushing for a new highway bill, which comes as Congress struggles to pass legislation before funding expires on March 31.

“We need a new transportation program,” Coleman said. “It will be timely to have thousands of local leaders in the city during this debate.”

The League’s conference follows another gathering of local government officials in Washington. This past week, the National Association of Counties (NACo) had more than 1,400 people attend its annual legislative conference.

Along with lobbying for an online sales tax and a new farm bill, county officials pressed lawmakers to move on the highway bill, saying delays to the legislation could stall job growth.

Earlier this month, NACo released a survey of 1,300 county engineers to argue for a new highway bill. Among its findings: Eighty-one percent of the responding engineers said that they have deferred maintenance since the recession began, while 86 percent also said they have bridges in poor condition.

Other local government groups have also lobbied for a new highway bill.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors organized a letter that sent to congressional leaders in support of the legislation earlier this month. Nearly 200 mayors signed onto the letter.

“As mayors, we believe it is crucial that bicameral, bipartisan surface transportation legislation move forward to help us accelerate the financing of highway and transit infrastructure, create well paying jobs and help get our economy back on track,” the mayor said in the letter.

After some delays, it seems Capitol Hill may move forward on a highway bill. House Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerJohn Feehery: A political forest fire Trump's pick for Federal Reserve chief is right choice at right time The two-party system is dying — let’s put it out of its misery MORE (R-Ohio) said this week that the lower chamber plans to take up the Senate version of the bill, which is a two-year, $109 billion package.