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StimCity: What America's Mayors Think of the Stimulus

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Despite the President's job summit last week and the appearance of momentum for a "jobs bill," the prospects for congressional action in the near future are dim. The House will try to pass a scaled-down bill before retiring for the Christmas holiday, but Majority Leader Steny Hoyer is not optimistic: "Our whole interest in life today is what can get through the Senate." With the estate tax, the national debt limit, and financial reform - not to mention health care - soaking up the Senate's energy and attention, the jobs bill will most likely be left behind.

The economic stimulus package that was passed not much less than a year ago suffered from the same Senate-centric, stripped-down mentality. Though the stimulus probably kept the United States from an even deeper recession (still, a double-dip remains possible), the bill's design is an important reason why ordinary Americans have not felt as much relief as was possible. While expansions of unemployment and food stamp benefits and health insurance assistance for the unemployed targeted those most in need, stimulus projects designed for job creation - particularly infrastructure funds for transportation and other large-scale projects - were much less effective.

To find out why these job-creation strategies do not seem to have had their desired impact, I spoke with a handful of the nation's mayors, both Democratic and Republican, for the Drum Major Institute's "Year In Review." Mayors, who oversee the urban areas that generate the majority of the nation's GDP and contain the majority of its population, seemed like the best people to ask about how the economic stimulus package is working - or not working. They argued that the stimulus package's design - particularly its focus on states instead of cities - hindered its success.

Here are a few of the most interesting responses (the rest are available here):

Mayor Dannel Malloy of Stamford, Connecticut [D]
"I think mayors were listened to. I just think we were then ignored and I don't think we were necessarily ignored by the President. I think we were ignored by the Congress. Congress really just missed a very large opportunity to work directly with larger local governments. As a result, I think far fewer people are working today with stimulus dollars. Let's be very clear: the Obama administration is a vast improvement over the Bush administration. The real question is, will the Obama administration have a better and broader view of cities and the role they play than the Clinton administration? The Clinton administration was absolutely the high mark since Roosevelt of interaction between a federal administration and local governments. The Obama administration should want to claim that title. It's an open question whether they will. I think it's been a rough start."

Mayor Pat McCrory of Charlotte, North Carolina [R]
"So much of the money is being directed through the states, which tend to shortchange major metropolitan areas. Charlotte got a total of $4 million for road money. A total of $4 million dollars out of $300 million for North Carolina! We're the largest city between Atlanta and Washington D.C. We're buying hammers or something."

Mayor Mick Cornett of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma [R]
"A mistake was made putting so much of the stimulus money through the states. What the governors did was address their inventory needs. Well, their inventory needs are largely in rural areas where people do not live. As a result, cities - where the majority of people do live in 2009 - got less than their share of federal stimulus money. It also created a larger bureaucracy. If the money had been distributed straight to the cities, it would have more efficient and more helpful and could have been implemented more quickly. It's either going to be a governor's stimulus package or a mayor's stimulus package and this is a governor's stimulus package."

Mayor Douglas Palmer of Trenton, New Jersey [D]
"I've been to the White House three times since February which is three more than I had the last eight years. They communicate with us on a regular basis. There has been an interaction and a sharing of dialogue. It seems that they are listening to mayors about how we can go about getting stimulus money more directly to cities and how we can reduce bureaucracy."

Conversations with mayors from around the country make clear that the Obama administration is interested in cities. But the conversations also make clear that congressional sausage-making might stop the administration in its tracks. Even if the Senate can take up a job-creation bill, it is far from certain that Congress will listen to mayors and target funds directly at cities.