By Kerry Young, CQ Staff
Over the past 12 months, Congress has reduced federal spending by about $47 billion, spread over two appropriations cycles. While the proponents of the cuts proclaimed they were long overdue, many also acknowledged that the choices made would be painful to those who rely on some programs financed by federal dollars.
“Many of these cuts will not win any popularity contests,” House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers (R-KY) said in May.
One of the first groups to feel the pain of the spending cuts are the nation’s mayors, who already have begun to receive less of the federal grant money that helps them run many programs in their cities and towns.
“People still have needs,” said Mayor Franklin Cownie of Des Moines, Iowa. “But we are going to be faced with the reality that those dollars aren’t available.”
In April, Congress completed overdue fiscal 2011 appropriations (PL 112-10), slicing almost $40 billion in discretionary spending from the previous year’s levels, and then trimming an additional $7 billion by the time it finished fiscal 2012 spending legislation (PL 112-74) in December.
While there is continued debate between liberals and conservatives about how meaningful these cuts have been, it is clear they have hit programs that provide money to cities and towns. For instance, Congress reduced regular discretionary spending by 4 percent between fiscal 2010 and fiscal 2012, but it more than halved the amount of money provided for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s equipment and training programs for state and local governments to $1.3 billion.
Even harder for mayors who are already facing fiscal crunches because of the sluggish economy was a cut of $1 billion, or 25 percent, over the two budget years for the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program, bringing it to $2.9 billion in fiscal 2012.
Pioneered by the Nixon administration, CDBG has long been a favorite of mayors because it directly provides them with federal money and gives them broad discretion over how to use it. CDBG money has allowed cities to take on projects ranging from housing rehabilitation to transportation for the elderly needing to get to medical appointments.
“Many older, traditional cities count on CDBG to provide a safety net,” said James Brainard, the Republican mayor of Carmel, Ind., a suburb of Indianapolis. “It is the mayors and the local officials who will have to explain why services are going away.”
Making Changes to Accommodate Cuts
Ashley Swearengin, the Republican mayor of Fresno, Calif., said the latest round of CDBG spending reductions probably will cause her city to cut back on programs that bring hot meals to the elderly and on efforts to eradicate graffiti associated with gang crime. Scott Smith, the Republican mayor of Mesa, Ariz., said CDBG cuts may cause his city to close a youth center, which he fears may end up adding to the cost of city-financed activities such as the police department and social services if teenagers end up turning to crime or other reckless unsupervised behavior.
The CDBG cuts are an added burden on already cash-strapped cities, particularly given concurrent reductions in aid for fire and police departments, Smith said. Towns still must prepare for disasters and potential attacks, while also helping their most vulnerable residents, even as the federal government reduces its own role in providing these services, Smith said.
“As the grants get cut, the responsibility doesn’t change,” Smith said. “We don’t have the ability to kick the problem down the road.”
There’s more involved in the CDBG cuts than a general zeal to pare spending, said Mick Cornett, the Republican mayor of Oklahoma City. Many Republicans argue that the federal government should not be routinely aiding states through programs like CDBG.
“They would like to do away with the program entirely. They are doing it one step at a time,” said Cornett, an advocate for the grants, who sees them as a way to return some of the tax dollars his constituents sent to Washington. “They are trying to wean cities off the CDBG program.”
Many mayors, such as Des Moines’ Cownie, have traveled to Washington recently to lobby against cuts to the grants.
“No matter what they end up doing here, we have to see those people every single day,” Cownie said during a trip to the Capitol in November. “We have to see them in the street. We see them in church we see them at the grocery store. We see them in our offices. They have needs and we have to try to find a way to try to help them.”
No Shift in Philosophy Seen Soon
Given the rising concern over the nation’s $15 trillion debt, mayors see little chance that Congress will abandon its cost-cutting strategy soon. Dwight C. Jones, the Democratic mayor of Richmond, Va., said he visited Washington this year to try to protect programs such as CDBG from cuts, largely to no avail, even though the No. 2 House Republican, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, is one of his constituents.
“We made our rounds in the Capitol, but it didn’t seem to make any difference in what Congress is doing,” Jones said.
One reason is that even though Republicans are the ones who kicked off the drive for cuts in discretionary spending, many Democrats have come to at least reluctantly support them as well. There was bipartisan agreement on an August budget deal that calls for holding the federal government’s operating expenses under the rate of growth expected for the economy or inflation. The debt limit law (PL 112-25) set limits on discretionary spending through fiscal 2021, capping it at $1.23 trillion in that final year.
And, many Republicans are pushing for deeper cuts in discretionary spending, arguing that the caps in the debt limit law represent only “ceilings,” or the maximum amount allowed to be allocated. If the federal government stays on it cost-cutting course, that means Congress will have to start finding savings in the budgets of departments and programs run directly by Washington, Jones said.
“Federal services will have to be reduced, and congressmen will have to come home to their districts and explain that,” he said.
Indeed, some conservative Republicans appear to be aiming for a federal government that would resemble the more spare and independent operations of House Speaker John Boehner’s (R-OH) hometown, West Chester, Ohio. Residents of the affluent Cincinnati suburb are responsible for contracting trash service with a private hauler, as no public garbage pickup is provided.
Judith C. Boyko, township administrator for West Chester, said that she recalls only one instance in her 20 years working for the municipality when the suburb received CDBG funds, using them for a project to link a housing development to a retail development. George Lang, who serves on West Chester’s three-member board of trustees, said he was pleased to see the cuts made in federal programs, such as CDBG. Lang says he is proud that Boehner, who has been in Congress since 1991, has never sought to steer federal dollars back home through earmarks.
“Speaker Boehner has not asked for any pork and we don’t want him to,” Lang said. “Don’t give us money. We will only spend it.”
Source: CQ Today Online News