Mayors want federal help for infrastructure in 2019

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WASHINGTON — U.S. Conference of Mayors President Steve Benjamin says his priorities for this year are maintaining the federal tax exemption for municipal bonds and persuading Congress to make new federal investments in infrastructure.

“The primary goal is always to preserve the tax exemption for muni bonds,” he said. “That allows every city of any size to access the capital markets. But many of us are engaged in, and open to aggressive P3s that help our communities as well.”

That’s the same theme of most — if not all — of the mayors who attended the U.S. Conference of Mayors winter meeting here over the last several days to meet with congressional lawmakers and hear from top Trump administration officials.

Many of the mayors were not sympathetic about the federal budget shutdown, contrasting it to their own mandate to balance their budgets and deliver daily services to their constituents. President Trump on Friday afternoon announced a short-term agreement to reopen the government, following a now month-old shutdown over disagreements about funding a wall along the border with Mexico.

“We’re here to show Washington how it’s done and push them to address the critical needs of our cities and the very real problems of American across this country face every single day,” Benjamin said at the opening news conference Wednesday.

Benjamin, who also chairs the Municipal Bonds for America Coalition, added: “While Washington remains mired in gridlock, the nation’s cities are continuing to move forward. Mayors are mobilizing resources, working to create opportunities for all our citizens and launching creative ideas to take us into the 21st century.”

New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell, who is vice chair of the conference’s infrastructure task force, said mayors also want to ensure that the federal dollars that have been allocated “are actually hitting the ground.”

“Throughout the United States of America, infrastructure is the top priority,” Cantrell said.

Cantrell was among the many mayors who expressed frustration with the partial federal government shutdown. “Every day they are not at work is a day our people go without,” she said.

With Democrats regaining majority control of the House for the first time in eight years, urban issues are expected to be highlighted in congressional debate this year over infrastructure needs.

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh emphasized the urgency for action.

“Even if a bill started now, it’s two or three years before any project is shovel ready,” Walsh told The Bond Buyer in an interview. “So we have to get this moving. And as a city like Boston that has major infrastructure needs, I’d love to see some real legislation come out of Washington that affects urban America and for Boston to be part of that.”

Last year the House and Senate reached agreement on a two-year budget bill that increased infrastructure spending by $10 billion in fiscal 2018 and would increase it again by another $10 billion in fiscal 2019 if the budget can finally be approved.

But Walsh said that funding “was less than it needed to be.”

“They also put money into housing that’s $1.5 billion less than it should be,” Walsh added. “We have concerns right now about housing vouchers in the United States of America not being fully funded. So making an investment in those projects is great, thank you, but if they are less than the prior year with inflation and everything else it doesn’t help.”

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms also emphasized that her city’s infrastructure needs range from the completion of a transit system to following a consent decree for its water system.

“Last year we repaired 17,000 potholes in the city of Atlanta compared to roughly 2,000 the year before,” Bottoms said. “But so much about that is putting Band-Aids on gaping wounds. Road repaving. We need federal dollars to help us with the basics.”

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