Municipal leaders ask delegation to fight cuts in federal aid

WASHINGTON–Municipal leaders from across Connecticut made a plea to the state’s congressional delegation Wednesday: Push back against domestic spending cuts that will hit their cities and towns hard.

“Please, do no harm,” Cindy Mangini, an Enfield Town Councilwoman, said of her pitch to the state’s five House and two Senate members.

“We’re trying to hang on to whatever funding we can keep,” Mangini said during a breakfast meeting with the delegation. If federal aid to cities and towns stays level this year “we can survive,” she said, but the reductions now being discussed could be devastating.

She and others were in Washington to attend the annual National League of Cities conference. They were most urgently focused on staving off proposed decreases to the Community Development Block Grant program, a vital pot of federal money that funds a range of local programs, from homeless shelters to substance-abuse programs to job training centers.

House Republicans have called for a 62 percent reduction in funding for the program, which would slice about $2.5 billion from the current fiscal year’s allocation. President Barack Obama has proposed a $300 million cut to the program for 2012.

“This is a vital part of jobs for our city,” said Marcus Paca, a New Haven alderman and chairman of that city’s Community Development Committee.

He said New Haven gets from $4 million to $6 million annually in CDBG funds, which helps support a range of anti-poverty initiatives, from lead abatement services to home foreclosure counseling. If the proposed GOP cuts go through, he said, it would decimate a job training program for ex-prisoners and could cut 50 slots, out of 120, from a local drug prevention program.

Connecticut lawmakers were largely sympathetic to the municipal leaders’ message, but several said the political reality was that cities would not emerge from this budget fight unscathed.

“There’s no way to sugarcoat it,” said Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District. “We’re going to have a rough couple of years.”

Sen. Joseph Lieberman, an independent, urged the group to lobby mayors and city council members from other states–ones that have Republican representatives in Congress. It was a tacit acknowledgment that Connecticut lawmakers may have little say in the final outcome of the current spending fight.

With Republicans in control of the House, veteran Reps. John Larson, D-1st District, and Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, have significantly less clout. And the state lost its most powerful lawmaker earlier this year, when ex-Sen. Chris Dodd, who spent 30 years in the Senate, officially retired.

“We’ve got to build coalitions,” Lieberman said. “It’s not going to be as it has been. We just have to make sure we limit the reductions.”

DeLauro is perhaps best positioned to fight specific cuts aimed at the CDBG program and other social programs because she sits on the House Appropriations Committee. In her remarks to the municipal leaders, DeLauro blasted the GOP budget proposal, saying it would undermine vital social programs at a critical moment for struggling cities.

Calling CDBG a “mainstay” program, DeLauro vowed to fight the spending decreases. But she also made a pitch for putting Democrats back in power in the next election, saying that was a more certain way to protect federal aid to cities.

Indeed, city officials were largely preaching to the converted. “Everyone is on board,” said Paca. “We don’t have anyone we can lobby directly.”

Still, he and others said they hoped their presence would have an impact. Now, he said, the delegation “needs to lobby their Republican friends, hard.”