Cities fear budget cuts by Republican Congress ELECTION 1994

November 11, 1994|By Michael A. Fletcher | Michael A. Fletcher,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- A Republican-controlled Congress pledged to reduce federal spending may be what most voters want. But in struggling cities, where big government is still seen as a virtue, it is viewed as a serious threat.

Lobbyists, mayors and legislators from big cities said yesterday that their budgets will likely be squeezed by congressional Republicans, many of whom will be looking to cut domestic spending and owe almost nothing politically to large urban areas.

"Cities are going to have to hunker down for the next couple of years," said Florence W. Prioleau, who lobbies on Capitol Hill for the cities of Baltimore and Cincinnati. "The Republicans have promised a tax cut, and they are going to be looking at places where they can rescind money to fund it.

"Housing and community development-type programs, community health programs -- those are the types of things that are going to be targets for cuts," she said.

Urban advocates said the gravest threat to cities posed by the GOP would be its "Contract with America," which is viewed as a Republican agenda for the next Congress.

Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said he fears that the contract means that Republicans will block more aid to cities.

Among the items proposed in the contract are tax cuts, increased defense spending and a crime bill that includes longer criminal sentences, more money for prison construction and less money aimed at crime prevention than was in the crime bill enacted this year.

"It appears the contract is going in the direction of a decrease in domestic discretionary spending and an increase in defense spending," said Leonard S. Simon, whose firm, Simon and Co., lobbies Congress for eight cities. "Needless to say, we would be very concerned if the result of the contract was to shrink domestic discretionary spending."

Congressional Republicans will feel little pressure from their constituents to do otherwise. America's largely Democratic urban centers, home to a disproportionate share of the nation's poor, minorities and elderly residents, accounted for only 8 percent of the votes garnered by Republicans in their triumph in Tuesday's midterm elections.

And, as Republicans see it, their mission is to shrink government, just as their supporters demanded.

"Our objective is to respond to this electoral mandate, by doing what the American people want, which is, in my opinion, gaining control of federal spending, reordering priorities, trying to let working people keep more of what they earn, make more decisions for themselves," said Texas Sen. Phil Gramm.

While many mayors are anxious, Victor Ashe, the Republican mayor of Knoxville, Tenn., and president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, questioned whether cities would suffer at the hands of a GOP-led Congress.

Republicans favor easing federal regulations on cities, he noted, which could help offset losses incurred by other urban programs.

"If they relieve some of the onerous burden of regulation, the need for federal funding wouldn't be as great," Mr. Ashe said. "I'm very upbeat about a Republican Congress."

By virtue of their victory, Republicans will control congressional committees that make funding decisions for federal housing, community development and health programs critical to big cities.

Moderate Republicans, or legislators with ties to large cities, are likely to chair such committees in the Senate, making prospects for cities appear brighter there than in the House. It is unclear who will head the House panels, where the Republican speaker-in-waiting, Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia, has plans to streamline the committee structure.

The Republican takeover of Congress comes as advocates for cities believed that they were making progress in attracting federal help after enduring cutbacks through the Reagan and Bush presidencies.

Since President Clinton took office, cities have benefited from modest increases in funding for transportation, public safety and housing programs, lobbyists said. Recently approved legislation authorizes $100 million grants for each of six demonstration cities to fight urban decay. Baltimore is among 78 cities competing for the "empowerment-zone" grants, which are expected to be announced by the end of the year.

Although the Democrats' devastating defeat is likely to pressure Mr. Clinton to pursue a less ambitious domestic policy, some liberal advocates have called on him to lead Democrats in rallying support in big cities, where many apathetic voters sat out the election.

"Democrats must again commit themselves to stimulating that base," the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson said in a statement yesterday. "Lack of an economic stimulus for urban America will not inspire that base. When that base votes, it wins."

Rep. Kweisi Mfume, a Baltimore Democrat vying for a party leadership post in the House, said Democrats in Congress must fight to protect the interests of their traditional base, which includes big cities.

But the promise of a fight provides little solace to city officials concerned about the impact of the Republican triumph.

"I think that anybody in a management role for a city should be worried," said Daniel P. Henson III, Baltimore's housing commissioner. "Republicans have made it clear that the cities don't mean a thing to them."

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