Weatherford Democrat

January 28, 2014

U.S. mayors forced to innovate


Weatherford Democrat

By DONNA BRAZILE

I recently came across more proof that lawmakers blocking progress are weakening the institution of Congress: 

Mayors from across the nation met in Washington, D.C., for three days last week to discuss a host of issues and possible solutions against a backdrop of congressional inaction. This came as President Obama stated his plans to use “a pen and a phone” to “make sure that we’re providing Americans the kind of help they need.” And further, voters are recognizing that the problem in Congress starts at the state level -- and many hope their legislatures will do something about it. 

Scott Smith, president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors (USCM) and mayor of Mesa, Ariz., put it bluntly: “Rather than look to Washington for assistance, mayors have been forced to turn to local partnerships to continue to accomplish more with less.”

We’ve been practicing innovation, creativity and the art of trying new things for years to keep our cities strong and thriving because the partnership between local and federal government is not as strong now as it once was,” Smith said.

“Several things that should be happening in Congress are not happening,” he stated. “Instead of Congress pulling together to help working Americans, there is an all-out assault on programs that would help them.”

Smith is a Republican who plans to resign his mayoral post in April to seek his party’s nomination for the Arizona governorship. He sounds nothing like the federal office-holders and candidates who seem to specialize in partisan rhetoric. Smith told USA Today he would miss his fellow mayors, describing them as a “pragmatic bunch who care more about finding solutions than about focusing on ideological differences.” 

The USCM released a study that underscored the importance of our cities to our economy. Conducted by IHS Global Insight, a Massachusetts company that researches and analyzes economic trends, the study found that:

— The national economy’s gross domestic product (GDP) will leap from last year’s 1.9 percent to 2.7 percent in 2014 -- and continue climbing into 2015 with a GDP increase of 3.2 percent. 

— Growth in consumer consumption (the driver of the economy) will be up sharply in 2014 from 2 percent to 2.8 percent in 2014.

— At the city level, 356 of the 363 U.S. metropolitan areas are expected to experience “real economic growth” (inflation adjusted) in 2014.

— Almost one-fifth of U.S. metro areas are projected to experience real economic growth in 2014 of 3 percent; 62 percent (226 metro areas) will have a 2 percent growth rate.

— 297 metro areas (82 percent) will see jobs growth in 2014, and 40 percent will see unemployment shrink to 6 percent. 

— On the national level, the U.S. unemployment rate is expected to fall to 6.5 percent in 2014, and break the 6 percent barrier in 2015, dropping to 5.9 percent.

“Mayors are making the most of what they have and what their residents can afford,” Smith emphasized. “It’s a tough job, and we are doing it with little help from Washington, D.C. We hope Congress can learn from us (mayors) how to put partisanship aside to advance ideas that can truly help real, everyday people.” 

The USCM also commissioned an energy study and found, despite tight budgets, a remarkable 300 cities that plan to reduce their consumption of energy. Most expect to make energy-efficient lighting (LEDs) a priority over the next two years, as well as retrofitting public buildings with energy-saving equipment. Mayors plan to find the funds in their own budgets and to partner with private enterprise (including electric companies) to accomplish energy-saving programs.

More than seven in 10 mayors believe their local utility companies are “their most important partners” in implementing plans to conserve energy, lower taxpayer costs and bring city lighting into the 21st century.

Other good news to come from the U.S. Mayor’s Conference is that only .06 percent of local governments filed for bankruptcy in the last five years. Detroit made headlines, but it’s the exception -- by a long shot.

Smith makes plain his view: “Mayors have been forced to make very difficult decisions in order to maintain balanced budgets -- forced cuts and forced local layoffs -- and are continuing to hold the nation together through the worst recession since the Great Depression, while Congress is still bickering.”

Cities and their wider metro areas account for 86 percent of all U.S. jobs and 90 percent of GDP. Our cities could use some cooperation from Congress, but instead, Congress seems to be moving in the opposite direction, making it more expensive and time-consuming to get municipal bonds. 

Before leaving Washington, D.C., for a few days of campus lectures, I sat down over dinner with an old friend, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who served as President Obama’s first chief of staff. Emanuel is one of the new generation of big-city mayors working to transform our urban landscape. For example, he began a program to pay teachers to tutor students in public libraries after school hours, five days a week.

We should praise our mayors for their innovative approaches, their willingness to put solutions and citizens over ideology and party, and their commitment to programs that help people. Congress could learn a lot from them. 

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Donna Brazile is a senior Democratic strategist, a political commentator and contributor to CNN and ABC News, and a contributing columnist to Ms. Magazine and O, the Oprah Magazine.