Amid the rancor and hand-wringing over the government shutdown precipitated by the GOP fight against Obamacare, the American Planning Association held its annual Policy Conference in Washington, D.C., sending about 60 planners from across the country into Congressional offices to advocate for funding of important programs focusing on infrastructure, resilience and livability. Preceding "advocacy day" on October 1st, APA held a series of well-organized sessions with experts discussing emerging issues such as aging, hazards mitigation and resilience, economic development, and tax reform. Noted speakers included Time magazine national correspondent Mike Grunwald, author of The Swamp and The New New Deal, and former Reagan and Bush I administration official, Bruce Bartlett, who repeatedly lamented the "wackos" and "nut jobs" forcing the shutdown.
Unlike several previous Planners Day on the Hill events, Congress was in session. The House of Representatives held a floor vote until nearly 2:30 AM on the day of our visits to pass a Continuing Resolution on the budget with the provision for a one-year delay in Obamacare. When the "clean" CR failed to pass, the shutdown became official. This made for a strange spectacle. Yellow tape blocked national parks and many entrances to Congressional office buildings, the Congressional gift shop was closed, and only one of the several restaurants on the Hill was open. Yet, the corridors and many offices were filled with people - staffers, lobbyists, students and members.
I met with Rep. Daniel Webster (R-FL), who was visibly tired and, although a cordial and receptive listener, was crankier than when I've talked with him informally in the past. He seemed worn down, and became curt when I pressed him to reconsider his opposition to the American Community Survey (he called it intrusive, time-consuming, unscientific and wasteful). I also met with the staff of Rep. Corrine Brown (D-FL), who is a long-standing friend of planning. Sen. Rubio (R-FL) cancelled my meeting with him, and flight plans prevented me from meeting with Florida's other Senator, Bill Nelson.
APA members met as a group with Rep. Scott Peters (D-CA), who was recognized by APA for his leadership on climate change and energy policy. Peters spoke about how the military, especially the Marine Corps, is gung-ho on expanding use of solar energy and improving military base resiliency based on science and mission impacts. He found it ironic that the armed forces would be such staunch supporters, yet the chairmen of GOP-led House committees dealing with those issues are in denial.
Advocacy Day focused on asking Congress to support several primary issues of interest to planners:
FY14 appropriations amounts in the Senate's budget bill that maintains funding for key transportation and HUD programs (known as T-HUD) that support infrastructure investment and community redevelopment like CDBG, TIGER and Choice Neighborhoods. The Senate's version puts $550 million toward the TIGER program. The Senate would also restore $75 million for the vital Partnership for Sustainable Communities programs at HUD and U.S. DOT. The House budget proposal eliminates funding for TIGER and dramatically cuts the others.
Promote innovative financing tools through the Partnership to Build America Act (H.R. 2084 by Rep. Delaney, D-MD) and expanded federal financing programs. The Partnership to Build America Act would finance the rebuilding of roads, bridges, transit systems, water treatment plans, etc. through an infrastructure fund using repatriated corporate earnings to provide financing to local governments. Proven tools, like TIFIA, can also be expanded.
Support efforts to provide local communities with better information and tools to plan for natural disasters through the Digital Coast Act (H.R. 1382) and the STRONG Act (S. 904 and H.R. 2322). The bipartisan Digital Coast Act and STRONG Act would improve and leverage existing federal efforts and programs to help planners improve local hazard resiliency. In the past two years, the federal government spent $136 billion on disaster relief. For every $1 spent now on disaster preparedness and resilience-building, we can avoid at least $4 in future losses. The STRONG Act would help promote greater coordination of existing federal programs and address gaps in key areas of resiliency planning.
Use tax reform to support critical infrastructure investments. Proposed changes in Congress would undermine proven tools like municipal bonds and low income housing tax credits. Instead, tax reform should provide an opportunity to address funding needs in existing sources, like the highway trust fund, which the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office projects to be bankrupt by 2015, requiring more deficit spending from general revenue. Tax reform presents an opportunity to create more sustainable funding sources that enable state and local governments, and private business, to invest in smart growth.
It might not have been the best time to advocate for planning issues and better funding of important planning programs, but there is a difference between a manufactured crisis and a real crisis. Failure to plan and fund our critical national infrastructure presents a very real crisis facing America that threatens to undermine our global, national and regional economic competitiveness. I'm glad APA is working to raise awareness and educate members of Congress and the American people about these issues.
-- Whit Blanton, Cities that Work Blog