A little over a year ago President Clinton's election elicited high hopes among many city officials and state legislators that, at long last, an administration was coming to power with a sense of urgency about addressing city problems.
In his campaign, Clinton talked about sweeping change in education, health care, crime, public infrastructure, and welfare. Coming from a Democrat and a longtime state governor, the pledges were taken seriously by voters who faulted Republican leaders in the White House for neglecting domestic policies or even savaging the poor.
So it is fair to ask how Clinton has done in living up to his promises to help the cities become better places to live.
Officials from the Office of Management and Budget and the Department of Housing and Urban Development did not return phone calls when asked about the subject. But National League of City officials and two Democratic mayors who were interviewed, Don Fraser of Minneapolis and Jim Dailey of Little Rock, say Clinton deserves a lot of credit for turning policies in a new direction.
They say he has opened up lines of communication with city officials and engineered a deficit reduction package that still managed to provide cities with increases in some major grant programs. And there is hopeful support for such long-term projects as health care reform and a national crime bill.
But there is also a sense that Clinton is hemmed in by an era of fiscal restraint and popular mistrust of government and taxes. And disappointment lingers over the White House's failure to deliver on the economic stimulus program, which would have immediately channeled federal dollars into city coffers.
"The general sense I get from most mayors and council members from around the country still seems to be impatiently optimistic, because I don't think the cities have felt the impact yet to the degree that we would all like, as quickly as we would like," said Dailey, a longtime personal friend of the President.
But, he said, "I still get a lot of sense of support from people across the country on where he's headed and what he's been able to accomplish, even though the benefits of some of those things like the national crime bill haven't been implemented to the degree we feel any dramatic shift."
According to League of City officials who have tallied up the numbers, high-priority grant and loan programs for municipalities generally got solid increases in funding in the fiscal 1994 appropriations bills hammered out in Congress, The gains are noteworthy because they had to be carved out of discretionary spending. an area of the federal budget that has been repeatedly scoured for savings by, congressional lawmakers in the last several years.
Following is a summary of what happened to federal funding of priority minocopal programs, comparing fiscal 1994 with fiscal 1993:
* Community development block grants increased to $4.4 billion, up 10% from $4.0 billion.
* HOME grants for state and local housing were raised to $1.275 billion, up 27.5 from $1 billion.
* Highway funding was raised to $17.6 billion from $15.3 billion, up 14.8%.
* Drinking water state revolving funds, a new program, are earmarked for funding of nearly $600 million.
* Rural waste and water programs increased to $500 million from $390 million, up 28.2%.
* Head Start programs were raised to $3.31 billion from $2.78 billion, up 19.2%.
* Clean water appropriations were slashed to $175 billion from $2.46 billion, a reduction of 28.7%
* Anticrime funds got knocked down 24.3% from $473 million to $358 million
All in all, city lobbyists were satisfied. "This was a good year," said Frank Shafroth, who heads the League's office of policy and federal relations. "City programs did well at the expense of other programs, including some of the priorities of the President."
But Shafroth warned that the federal budget set a five-year freeze on discretionary spending that could end up taking a bite out of municipal programs, especially after agency budgets are adjusted for inflation and fixed contract costs that have to be paid each year. "There's no question some of these numbers are going to go down over time," he said.
Henry Cisneros, the secretary of housing and urban development, is already under pressure from administration budget officials to come up with $40 billion in savings over the next five years, according to Shafroth.
The centerpiece of the President's economic program, the new tax law, is loaded with changes that affect cities directly and indirectly.
The law permanently extends single-family mortgage revenue bonds and industrial development bonds, two popular programs that periodically fell into limbo when they expired and Congress failed to renew them. The new tax law also permanently extends the low-income housing tax credit, which is often used in connection with tax-exempt financing by state and local issuers.
Beginning in January, the law authorizes tax credits and bond financing in six urban empowerment zones and another 65 urban enterprise zones to be selected by Cisneros
Employers in the empowerment zones will be allowed to claim deductions on property and take a 20% nonrefundable wage credit against income tax liabilities up to $15,000 in wages and training expenses. Cities with either type of zone will be eligible to issue up to $3 million in bonds for qualified business. In addition, the new law provides $1 billion in new funding to states for social service block grants.
In an effort to raise revenue and redistribute income, the law raises tax rates for corporations and high-income individuals, while adding more than $20 billion to the earned income tax credit for the poor. League officials estimate that a single mother earning $19,000 and living with two children in rental housing will see her tax liability go from $577 to practically zero.
Overall, the federal budget shifts about $35 billion a year to the cities by chipping away at middle class programs, Shafroth estimates. "We're at the margin, but there's a substantial redirection in the amount of money going to middle-income Americans," he said. "There is a chunk that goes to low-income families and children on the tax side and through direct spending."
Fraser, the outgoing president of the League of Cities, does not believe Clinton's programs go far enough. "The tax changes are okay. I don't think they accomplish much redistribution of income," he said, and he cared the increases in federal grants and loans "very welcome" but "modest."
What city officials agree on is that relations with the Clinton Administration became more distant after a Senate filibuster killed the President's economic stimulus plan. Backers of the proposal were put on the defensive when Republican lawmakers heaped scorn on it as a $16.3 billion payoff with swimming pools for big-city mayors who supported Clinton.
"Up until the defeat of that proposal, the level of cooperation was truly extraordinary, but subsequently there was a backing off and a kind of circling of the wagons," said Shafroth. "It was a very harsh loss for the administration and for all of us, and it did alter the chemistry and the perceptions."
But Clinton did go ahead and win approval of his budget in squeaker votes in the House and Senate. He also won passage of a family leave bill guaranteeing workers up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave and a pilot national service program that would allow education grants up to $10,000. In addition, Congress passed the Brady handgun bill, which Clinton signed into law, and made headway on an omnibus crime bill.
Fraser said more needs to be done. He would like to see tax law changes that go further in redistributing income, a higher minimum wage, and a child care entitlement program with fees tied to income.
Fraser also said he does not like talk within the Clinton Administration of requiring welfare recipients to take jobs after two years of benefits. That idea, he cautioned, does not deal with the fact that many families on welfare are reluctant to leave for low-paying jobs without health care.
Half of all births in Minneapolis are to single mothers, up from 27% when Fraser first became mayor in 1980.
But health care reform, if it provides the universal coverage promised, would go a long way toward eliminating an incentive for staying on welfare, Fraser said.
Dailey of Little Rock said he is hopeful that Congress will adopt crime legislation that lives up to its promise of putting more police officers on the street, although he recognized that federal funding will be a problem. In Little Rock, crime now claims 28% of the city budget, up from 23% a few years ago.
Over the longer term, mayors are hoping that Clinton will succeed in his biggest campaign promise of all - engineering a solid economic expansion that creates more jobs. Besides increasing city revenues directly and lowering social welfare costs, a stronger economy would boost state revenues and ease pressures on state legislators to scale back assistance to cities.