Mayors Meet With U.S. Senators as Legislative Agenda Shifts Away From Health Care

The Rotunda inside the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C.

The Rotunda inside the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C. Shutterstock

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“We don't feel comfortable or reassured about anything that we see happening in Washington right now,” New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu told Route Fifty on Capitol Hill.

WASHINGTON — With the debate in Congress about health care receding for now and possible tax and infrastructure legislation on the horizon, a bipartisan group of mayors from around the nation came here Wednesday to discuss their priorities with U.S. senators.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors organized the visit. Mayor Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans is the Conference’s current president and spoke with Route Fifty after meeting with lawmakers.

Boosting federal infrastructure investment remains a priority for mayors, Landrieu said. He also said the five senators he spoke with did not offer any guarantees that a long-standing tax exemption for municipal bonds would be preserved in any forthcoming tax legislation.

Republican senators the mayors met within included: Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker of Tennessee and Tim Scott of South Carolina. They also met with two Democratic senators, Gary Peters of Michigan and Chuck Schumer of New York, who is the Senate minority leader.

House and Senate appropriations committees in recent weeks have been passing bills that reject many of the deep cuts to domestic spending that the Trump administration recommended in its budget plan for the upcoming 2018 fiscal year, which begins on Oct. 1.

Mayors have opposed cuts the White House proposed, particularly for transportation, housing and urban development and law enforcement grants.

Asked if the appropriations bills were at all reassuring, Landrieu replied: “We don't feel comfortable or reassured about anything that we see happening in Washington right now.”

“We think it's dysfunctional, we think it's broken. We think it's misdirected,” he added, noting that he was talking about the “entire Washington establishment.” He went on to say that it "seems like the president's team can’t stay on the same page, on one subject, for more than two or three hours and then Congress is forced to react” and that “there’s no predictability.”

The Conference of Mayors has been pressing to keep the federal income tax exemption for municipal bonds in place since President Trump was elected.

The group’s leadership raised the issue in a meeting with the then-president-elect in December. At that time, Trump seemed to indicate that he was supportive of the exemption. But mayors still fear it could be eliminated or curtailed as part of a broader tax code overhaul.

The tax break exempts interest earnings on municipal bonds from federal income tax.

Proponents say it keeps down borrowing costs for state and local governments. States and localities regularly issue municipal bonds to finance infrastructure projects, like road and bridge construction. Critics of the exemption commonly argue that it costs the federal government money in foregone tax revenue and that it is an inefficient subsidy.

Trump has identified infrastructure investment as a priority for his administration. As he discussed the prospect of the exemption getting chopped, Landrieu said: “If you really want to build infrastructure, that actually takes you in the wrong direction.”

According to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the other mayors who met with the senators on Wednesday included Steve Benjamin, of Columbia, South Carolina; Bryan Barnett, of Rochester Hills, Michigan; Greg Fischer, of Louisville, Kentucky; John Giles, of Mesa, Arizona; and Kim McMillan, of Clarksville, Tennessee.

Landrieu, a Democrat, is seen as a possible contender in the 2020 presidential election.

Earlier in the day, at an event, he pushed back on remarks Thomas Homan, acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, made in June. Homan suggested local law enforcement officials in large cities do not cooperate enough with his agency, allowing criminals to flourish.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders during an afternoon press briefing defended Homan’s remarks and said she trusts him more than Landrieu on immigration matters.

Immigration policy has proven to be a contentious issue between the Trump administration and some cities, with the Justice Department threatening to withhold certain grant funding from so-called “sanctuary” jurisdictions that limit cooperation with federal immigration authorities.

Route Fifty asked Landrieu if he was any less optimistic than he was six months ago that mayors and cities could find areas where they could work with the Trump White House. “This is a curious administration,” he responded. “It changes its mind every day.”

“We would just continue to say that we’re not part of the resistance,” he added. "Hopefully we can work together, because that is by far our preference.”

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