The Clinton administration is telegraphing a message to America's state and local governments that if the economic stimulus package clears Congress, they better use the billions coming their way both quickly and inventively.
States, says Transportation Secretary Federico Pena, must be prepared to act on bids for $3 billion in new highway aid within 60 days of congressional passage, or risk losing the money.
What's more, Mr. Pena told the recent National League of Cities meeting in Washington, the $752 million for mass transit in the Clinton stimulus package signals an intent to correct the heavy anti-transit tilt of the Reagan-Bush years. Transit must be used, the secretary said, ''to help clean up our air, make us more competitive, improve mobility and stimulate our economy.''
Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros told the 3,000 city officials they should be ready to use stimulus funds to ''put people to work in your communities immediately.''
But as he outlined the stimulus package's extra $2.5 billion in community-development block grant funds, plus special homeless and housing appropriations, Mr. Cisneros said the new ''partnership'' with the federal government would involve ''mutual responsibilities.''
It's no longer sufficient, he suggested, to run cities like corporate structures, simply delivering traditional services such as fire, police and picking up the garbage.
The slow burn of cities in post-L.A. America, he said, means ''You must accept that the human- resources agenda is the proper agenda of mayors and council members.'' That means making the provision of quality, affordable housing a city priority. It means breaking down city governments' ''wall of disaffection from public housing.''
And it means, Mr. Cisneros said in a subsequent interview, a metropolitan approach to urban policy. Suburbs as well as inner cities should accept homeless facilities and public housing. It is time to revive, he said, the Carter-era executive order that sought to channel job-generating federal offices and facilities into needy center cities.
Mr. Cisneros told the city officials he'd resist the requests from some mayors to dispense with citizen participation guidelines in applying the stimulus package's infusion of community-development dollars: ''Citizen participation is not a distraction or a delay,'' he said. ''It's the way we engage people in a sense of decision-making over public resources -- their destinies, their lives. It's grass-roots democracy and the energy we'll need to get people to take charge, for their own responsibility.''
Mr. Cisneros is open to some money being used to fix up bridges, water systems and sidewalks. But the real payoff, he believes, will be in ''projects that meet human needs through building the community.''
Examples would be refurbishing housing for lower-income people, converting older industrial structures into neighborhood and job-training centers, building effective community multi-service facilities, or ''recreational facilities so that we can once again have Little League and Boy Scouts and Brownies and Girl Scouts in center cities.''
Mr. Cisneros suggests a ''reinvented'' HUD could be ''facilitator, expeditor, catalyst'' -- though ''never a leader'' -- in thousands of cities and counties. He's more for carrots than sticks. He likes the idea, advanced by one mayor, to lighten the federal regulatory paperwork of cities with consistently positive outcomes in how they use HUD funds.
The new secretary believes a ''reinvented'' HUD could be the federal government's voice for community, encouraging local dialogue and institutions. Local groups and governments might, for example, be invited to propose experimental combinations of federal funds, with HUD acting as a friend of and advocate with such disparate federal departments as Education, Transportation, Labor and Health and Human Services.
HUD's very name might be changed, Mr. Cisneros thinks -- perhaps to a Department of Community Investment, or Community Life.
None of these changes will come overnight, or easily. But by requiring more effort, more performance, from all the parties at the table, they do suggest a more imaginative national government and a federal-local dynamic potentially much more productive than either the grants rush of the '60s or the indiscriminate cutbacks of the '80s.
Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.