Alaska Senator Mark Begich told mayors at the January 18 plenary session that Congress has a lot of big issues to deal with in 2013: immigration, gun violence, education reform, energy and climate change. But, “We cannot get to these issues until we deal with the bigger budget issues,” he said. Begich explained that in the next 90 to 120 days, Congress will have to make some tough decisions. The fiscal cliff bill approved last year, which provided additional revenue to reduce the federal deficit, was just the start. “We still have a $16 trillion debt hanging over our head,” he said. Congress must still deal with sequestration or automatic across-the-board budget cuts, and tax reform.

How Congress deals with these issues will be critically important to local and state governments. Begich said, “We have to make sure that when we make these decisions, they are smart budget cuts and reductions.” At the same time, he said Congress must continue to invest in effective programs to grow the nation’s economy. He explained that programs like the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) support economic growth. “When you think about the dollars we spend on this program and the ripple effect it has in local communities, it’s amazing. It is the most efficient program in delivering services and leveraging money out there,” he said. Energy Block Grants and transportation programs were also mentioned as smart investments that are critically important to local communities.

Reacting to proposals introduced last year to eliminate or limit the deduction on tax-exempt municipal bond interest, he pointed out that he is amazed at how little some members of Congress understand the importance of this program and how it is being used to fund critical infrastructure needs. Because they don’t understand, he told mayors, “Your voice is going to have to be loud and frequent on this issue.”

Begich reminded mayors that we did not accumulate $16 trillion in debt over the last few years. But it has been occurring over the last 40 years. If you compare where we are now compared to where we were four years ago, he explained you can see “…we are on the right path, the economy is headed in the right direction, slow but better.” As evidence he mentioned that four years ago the stock market was down to 6,500 points and today it’s well over 13,500; unemployment was in the double digits and today it’s below eight percent, and housing start is at a five year high.

Mayors were told it is critically important for them to continue to educate their members in the Senate and House on the issue that are important to them back home. Begich said, “There is no better group than the Conference of Mayors to prove how you can make things happen and it doesn’t matter if you are a Democrat or Republican.” He commended the Conference of Mayors for setting the example for state houses and Congress when it comes to setting aside partisan differences in order to get things done.

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