The Supreme Court and Simple Math


Its simple math. Really. But will the Supreme Court do it? The lower court refused.

The question in Alabama Department of Revenue v. CSX Transportation is whether a state discriminates against rail carriers in violation of federal law even when rail carriers pay less in total state taxes than motor carriers? No, argues a State and Local Legal Center (SLLC) Supreme Court in an amicus brief. Forty-two states exempt motor carriers from sales tax on diesel fuel. This case is relevant to local government because a number of cities and counties in Alabama impose an additional sales tax on railroad diesel fuel.

Rail carriers (railroads) in Alabama pay a four percent sales tax on diesel fuel. Motor carriers (trucks) pay an excise tax of 19-cents per gallon and no sales tax. The Railroad Revitalization and Regulatory Reform Act (4-R) prohibits state and local governments from imposing taxes that discriminate against railroads. Since CSX filed its complaint, railroads paid less in sales tax than trucks paid in excise tax. But, the Eleventh Circuit refused to compare the total taxation of railroads and trucks to avoid the “Sisyphean burden of evaluating the fairness of the State’s overall tax structure.” Instead it concluded Alabama’s sales tax on railroads violates 4-R because Alabama’s competitors don’t pay it.

The SLLC brief argues that given state’s traditional power to tax the Court should interpret 4-R narrowly. The brief suggests the Court could take three approaches to rule in favor of Alabama. First, it could compare the tax treatment of rail carriers to all commercial and industrial taxpayers in the state (who all pay sales tax) instead of only railroad competitors. Second, the Court could ignore the labels of sales and excise tax and compare the amount railroads and their competitors pay in total taxes. Third, the Court could note the relevant differences between railroads and their competitors. For example, water carriers traditionally have been exempt from all taxes on diesel fuel because of constitutional concerns about taxing vessels in navigable waters.

Finally the SLLC brief points out that “[r]uling in favor of CSX would threaten States’ ability to take in tax revenue, an ability already impeded by current economic conditions. This Court must not allow 4-R to shield CSX—a $12 billion nationwide corporation—and other rail carriers from paying millions of dollars in taxes that fund vital public services. Congress did not intend for 4-R to enrich large corporations by impoverishing the States.”

All of the Big Seven, including NLC, joined the SLLC brief along with SLLC associate members the International Municipal Lawyers Association and the Government Finance Officers Association. Sarah Shalf of the Emory Law School Supreme Court Advocacy Project wrote the SLLC brief.

A 20-Year Shift in Neighborhood Investing

brooklynA new condo building stands in the the lower east side of Manhattan. Source: Getty Images.

Where we live, the kind of homes we occupy and the quest for a place of our own remains closely tied to that goal on the horizon we call, The American Dream. Consequently, our nation’s leaders, including those at the local level, devote tremendous energy to issues relating to housing and neighborhoods.

A scan of the last twenty years illustrates some significant and notable shifts in approach to these issues – with implications for the kind of housing that gets built, who pays for development and at what level and who has choices in the marketplace and who does not.

For example, let’s look back at 1994 when the Home Investment Partnership Program (HOME) was in its fourth year. The HOME program provides formula grants to states and localities that communities use – often in partnership with local nonprofit groups – to fund building, buying and rehabilitating affordable housing for rent or ownership or providing direct rental assistance to low-income residents.

This program remains a staple of the local landscape and a bulwark in support of housing opportunities for those seeking to reach a critical wrung on the ladder to the middle class. In fact, during evaluations of this program during 1994, the value and scope of HOME was not in question; the debate centered on the ease and efficiency of program administration and reporting.

PullQuoteIn the same year, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) launched a bold effort called the National Community Development Initiative. Brought to the table was a coalition of 10 major corporations and foundations collaborating to raise $87.65 million in partnership with HUD to accelerate central city neighborhood renewal in 23 cities. Through this remarkable partnership, $20 million from HUD was matched by $15 million from Prudential, $15 million from the Rockefeller Foundation and $12 million from J. P. Morgan, among other partners.

By 1998, research from the respected Urban Institute, and its team of researchers Christopher Walker and Mark Weinheimer (Weinheimer & Associates), offered the first solid evidence of program progress. For community development corporations in the 23 target cities, the report found that housing unit production was up, budgets were larger, management structures were vastly improved and funding sources were more diversified.

Views about community lending also were different in 1994. At that time, the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) was being lauded as a valuable tool to ensure access to credit throughout a community.

Passed into law in 1977 and amended several times, there remained an expectation that this measure increased the ability of advocacy groups, researchers, and other analysts to “perform more-sophisticated, quantitative analyses of banks’ records,” to paraphrase Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke some years later.

There was an expectation that over time, community groups and nonprofit organizations would establish “more-formalized and more-productive partnerships with banks,” thereby influencing the lending policies of banks.

A Different Kind of Partnership

Jumping forward to 2004, you can hear the alarm bells sounding. The HOPE VI program was coming under considerable criticism as a tool to build affordable housing for those most in need. Public housing advocates increasingly needed to rely on private sector investment to serve those who were not able to pay market rates for rent.

Charles Lyons of Arlington, Mass., President of the National League of Cities that year, was so concerned about the “inequality in our communities due to a lack of affordable housing,” that he launched the Divided We Fall campaign to focus on the growing disparities in cities.

partnerpullDisparities continue to confront Americans today, not only in housing and neighborhood amenities but in educational attainment, income and wealth generation, poverty rates, and criminal sentencing.

Despite these disparities, a lively, engaging federal-local partnership on national priorities remains absent. Rather than a partnership with the federal government, all that localities have now is the prospect of federal leverage. This leverage comes in the form of small pools of dollars offered mostly on a competitive basis and encumbered with enough restrictions and conditions to all but eliminate the possibility for experimentation and truly creative thinking from local decision makers.

If we accept the fact that government alone cannot solve the significant challenges that confront communities and that partnerships are the essential ingredient to success, then the only operative question to ask is, ‘What type of partnership will yield the greatest success?’ To that question, the balance of historical fact argues for a partnership of equals, dedicated to achieving consensus, led by those with the proximity and the experience to mobilize community resources in order to achieve positive outcomes for all the stakeholders. It is this recognition and acknowledgement of a wider shared responsibility to the public interest, rather than to any private interest, that is the required component to establish “a more perfect Union.”

It can only be hoped that by the time the National League of Cities stands to celebrate its centennial, the much desired federal-local partnership will be a reality.

Brooks, J.A. 2010About the Author: James Brooks is NLC’s Director for City Solutions. He specializes in local practice areas related to housing, neighborhoods, infrastructure, and community development and engagement.  Follow Jim on Twitter @JamesABrooks.

Transportation Funding Needed for National Park Service

The National Park Service manages nearly 10,000 miles of roadways — 1,100 miles of which are major parkways.

GW-ParkwayGeorge Washington Parkway 04 2012 1403 by Mariordo (Mario Roberto Duran Ortiz) – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons.

If the mention of transportation for national parks leads you to conjure images of dirt roads and unpaved trails, think again. The George Washington Memorial Parkway, a 25-mile-long stretch maintained by the National Park Service (NPS) along the south bank of the Potomac River, showcases a more accurate picture.

Those who fly in and out of Ronald Reagan National Airport may recognize the GW Parkway as a primary artery in and out of Washington, DC, one of the nation’s busier urban centers. But few may recognize the Parkway as a national park road. With a maintenance backlog of $11.6 million, the GW Parkway exemplifies the transportation funding crisis facing the National Park Service this year, along with other public land management agencies across the country.

Nearly one-third of America’s surface transportation systems are managed by federal agencies. As such, they serve as crucial channels to recreation, conservation and tourism interests in every major city and as central thoroughfares in gateway communities from coast to coast. These lands and waters include national parks and national forests, national wildlife refuges and more. Think Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia, Statue of Liberty National Monument in New York City, or Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco.

The backlog of National Park Service transportation projects accounts for $6 billion, or more than half of the Park Service’s total deferred maintenance backlog of $11.3 billion. Our federally-managed lands and waters are a national responsibility. Though located in some of the nation’s busiest urban centers, access to and through these areas is a national responsibility. It is a responsibility poorly served. Each time someone fills his or her gas tank, less than one penny per gallon goes to fund major national park roads, bridges and trails. To re-iterate, the backlog of national park transportation projects account for $6 billion, or more than HALF of the Park Service’s total maintenance backlog of $11.3 billion.

The National Park Service manages nearly 10,000 miles of roadways — 1100 miles of which are major parkways. Moreover, roughly 150 public transit systems, like buses, ferries, and trolleys operate at 72 national parks, many located in urban centers and gateway communities whose tourist economies depend on these transit systems. The National Park Service is responsible for more than 1500 bridges (including the Memorial Bridge in Washington DC), and 60 tunnels. And because most bridges and tunnels were built in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, they are in the second half of their service lives and therefore will require increasing amounts of funding for both maintenance and reconstruction in the years ahead.

As mayors and urban leaders focus their attention next spring on the reauthorization of the federal transportation law, MAP-21, they would be wise to support funding for America’s parks and other public lands when Congress develops a strategy to succeed MAP-21, particularly in light of the National Park System Centennial in 2016. The programs – and funding levels – for federal lands transportation have been largely unchanged for twenty years.

The next federal surface transportation program should include a new chapter addressing the federal responsibility for accessing our national lands. Municipal leaders should remember that of the 401 units managed by the National Park Service, more than half are located in urban centers. The nation should invest adequate funds to meet and maintain public lands system transportation needs, and mayors and city leaders must urge the use of Highway Trust Fund revenue for this purpose.

Karen Nozik's Head Shot blogAbout the author: Karen Nozik has served as the Director of Ally Development and Partnerships at the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) in Washington, DC since 2011. In previous experience, she was Communications Director for Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) in Boulder, Colorado, and Director of Outreach for Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, a national nonprofit organization in Washington, DC, working with communities to preserve and transform unused rail corridors into trails.

How Cities Balance Urban Development and Affordability

“The recovery of the housing market in many cities is the very definition of a double-edged sword.”


Earlier this year, President Obama named a mayor to be the new Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. It’s no surprise that former San Antonio Mayor, Julián Castro was appointed to this position – the selection reflects the unique understanding local officials have about the central role housing plays in the health of communities.

Our analysis of mayoral State of the City addresses makes this even clearer. Almost two-thirds (65%) of speeches in our sample “covered” housing and over one-fifth (22%) devoted “significant coverage” to the topic.

Housing is one of only a few issues that everyone can quickly relate to in a visceral way – it impacts where our children go to school, how we get to work, what we do for fun and can also be viewed as a social statement.


At the core of housing, though, is cost. And this is reflected in our data. The issue of affordable housing was discussed in 41 of the 100 speeches we analyzed. With half of renters spending more than 30% of their income on housing and 28% of renters spending more than half of their income, it’s not surprising that city leaders are giving voice to the growing impacts of this issue on their neighborhoods.

The scarcity of affordable housing is made more difficult by reductions in federal resources aiding cities, such as the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) and the HOME Investment Partnership Fund (HOME). Since fiscal year 2010, CDBG has been cut by 24%, while HOME has been cut by 45%. These reductions have significantly reduced the ability of cities to support the development and rehabilitation of affordable housing.

The recovery of the housing market in many cities is the very definition of a double-edged sword. To capitalize on undervalued properties, developers in many cities are building higher-end projects. Rising home prices are helping to replenish the tax base while cities still feel the lingering effects of the great recession, but this also exacerbates the affordable housing crisis, discouraging or outright preventing first-time homebuyers and placing upward pressure on rents.

These trends are being felt across the country. For example, in Norfolk, Va., Mayor Paul Fraim proudly noted the city’s building permit activity was again at pre-recession levels. Norfolk’s median home prices and their assessed values were up, said the mayor, while distressed sales were down.

The development of luxury condominiums and retail were touted as signs of progress and economic recovery in cities from Fort Wayne, Ind., to Lenexa, Kan. Mayors in cities such as Euclid, Ohio, Jersey City, N.J., Ferndale, Mich. and Lansing, Mich. all heralded the growth in home prices. Many of these cities were some of the hardest hit during the market crash and the price gains come even as cities continue to deal with remaining blight.

Lansing, Mich. is working with Michigan State University to help strategically direct their blight removal and spur economic development. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake of Baltimore, Md., continues to drive the Vacants to Value program, while expanding the city’s Apartment Tax Credit to promote the construction of new apartments.

How Cities Are Addressing Affordability

With cities facing so many interconnected issues surrounding housing, local leaders have stepped up, creating a climate of creative leadership to address longstanding structural issues.

In Valparaiso, Ind., the city is investing in more transit-oriented development to meet changing demographics and affordability needs. Recognizing that both young professionals and empty-nesters are drawn to the city for its social and economic opportunities, Mayor Costas called on the city to “boldly but responsibly” create more critical mass and sustainability to ensure their downtown is positioned to thrive in the decades to come.

More broadly, cities are at the forefront of addressing the nation’s growing income disparity – which has clear implications for housing affordability. San Diego and Seattle are leading efforts to address housing affordability by no longer focusing on subsidies alone.

In San Diego, Mayor Falconer called on the city council to place a measure before voters to raise the minimum wage. “Lower-income workers are more likely to spend their additional wages on basics like food, housing and transportation,” said the mayor. “That is good for businesses. It is good for San Diego. And it is good for all of us. Let’s reduce the need for subsidized housing. Let’s start paying people enough to be able to afford the rents and mortgages in our city.”

Seattle has already moved forward with this approach. Earlier this year, Mayor Murray signed new legislation that raises the city’s minimum wage to $11 by April 1, 2015 and to $15 by January 1, 2017.

While affordable housing remains a challenge, bold experiments happening in cities offer insights on how to ensure all residents have equitable access to all that our cities have to offer.

This post is the second blog in NLC’s State of the Cities project. In a future post, we’ll continue discussing the impact of housing as it relates to improving the delivery of services to vulnerable populations.

 Elisha_blogAbout the Author: Elisha Harig-Blaine is the Principal Associate for Housing (Veterans and Special Needs) at NLC. Follow Elisha on Twitter at @HarigBlaine.

Supreme Court and Local Governments: What Will the Court Accept Next?

Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens To Retire

While the Supreme Court’s next term officially begins on October 6, its “long conference” is September 29.  At this conference the Court will review a backlog of petitions that have been piling up over the summer. SCOTUSblog compiles a list of petitions that it thinks have a reasonable chance of being granted.  Eight of the petitions the Court will consider either during the “long conference” or at a later conference directly involve or impact local governments.

Public nuisance.  A Brighton, Michigan, ordinance presumes that an unsafe structure will be demolished as a public nuisance if the cost of repairing it exceeds its value.  The owner has no right to repair the structure.  Brighton property owners wanted to repair two unsafe structures even though Brighton estimated it would cost almost double the property value do so.  In Bonner v. City of Brighton, Michigan, the property owners claim the ordinance violates substantive and procedural due process.

Employment.  Under federal employment law to bring a discrimination claim a plaintiff must prove that an “adverse action” occurred, and to bring a retaliation claim a plaintiff must prove a “materially adverse action” occurred.  The question in Kalamazoo County Road Commission v. Deleon is whether either can be proven when an employer grants an employee’s request for a job transfer (and the new position turns out to be less desirable than the old position).  The International Municipal Lawyers Association (IMLA) filed an amicus brief in this case.

Housing discrimination.  For the third time the Court may take up the issue of whether disparate-impact (as opposed to disparate treatment) claims can be brought under the Fair Housing Act and, if they can, what burden of proof applies.  If the Court accepts Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. The Inclusive Communities Project it remain to be seen whether it will settle like its predecessors, Mt. Holly v. Mt. Holly Citizens in Action and Magner v. Gallagher.  IMLA filed amicus briefs in both previous cases.

Sexually oriented businesses (SOBs).  An Indianapolis ordinance prohibits SOBs from operating from midnight to 10AM and on Sundays.  A city may regulate an SOB if it relies on evidence reasonably believed to be relevant to the secondary effects the city seek to address.  In City of Indianapolis, Indiana v. Annex Books Indianapolis argues the Seventh Circuit erred in requiring that its hours of operation regulation to be supported by “highly specific, statistically-significant empirical evidence.”

Police searches of hotel registries.  A Los Angeles ordinance requires hotels to gather data on guests and allows police to inspect hotel registries without a warrant.  The first question in City of Los Angeles v. Patel is whether facial challenges to ordinances are possible under the Fourth Amendment.  The second question is whether police can inspect hotel registries without a warrant.

Qualified immunity interlocutory appeal.  When a district court denies a government’s motion for summary judgment in a qualified immunity case the government may seek interlocutory (immediate) review of that decision.  But what if a district court simply refuses to consider a government’s motion for summary judgment in a qualified immunity case?  Is interlocutory review still available?  IMLA filed an amicus brief in Schultz v. Wescom.

Pregnancy counseling centers.  A New York City ordinance requires pregnancy counseling centers that have the appearance of being medical facilities to disclose they don’t have a medical license.  The issues in Pregnancy Care Center of New York v. City of New York, New York are whether requiring this disclosure violates the First Amendment and whether the “appearance” criteria is unconstitutionally vague.

Accommodating mentally ill suspects.  In City and County of San Francisco, California v. Sheehan police entered a mentally ill woman’s apartment, she threatened them with a knife, and they retreated.  Upon re-entry, police shot her after she threatened them again.  The first issue is whether the Americans with Disabilities Act requires police to accommodate armed, violent, and mentally ill suspects when bringing them into custody.  The second issue is whether the officers in this case should be denied qualified immunity because they could have anticipated her resistance.  IMLA filed an amicus brief in this case.

While the “long conference” is only a few weeks away, it may be a while before the Court decides whether to grant or deny any of these petitions, even those set for the “long conference.”  The Court frequently relists cases, or postpones deciding on petitions until later conferences during the term.

Soronen_Pic (2)

About the Author: Lisa Soronen is the Executive Director of the State and Local Legal Center and a regular contributor to CitiesSpeak.

Using Data to Improve Accountability in Economic Development Programs

This post was written by Ellen Harpel, founder of Smart Incentives and president of Business Development Advisors LLC (BDA), an economic development and market intelligence consulting firm. Post originally appeared on the Smart Incentives blog.


Data is one of the key elements of the Smart Incentives 4×4 framework that enables communities to make sound investment decisions. Unfortunately, good data on how well incentive programs work is often lacking. This lack of data hinders both economic development professionals in their day-to-day work and policymakers in their leadership and oversight roles.

Last year one report concluded unhappily, “We simply don’t have the information we need to make good decisions about incentives.” The Pew Charitable Trust’s widely-cited 2012 report, Evidence Counts, found that “half the state have not taken basic steps” to provide evidence of whether incentives work well or not, and “no state regularly and rigorously tests whether those investments are working,” though many states have taken valuable steps to begin to understand and evaluate the impact of their incentive programs.

Here we consider 3 data themes: available resources, challenges in data collection, and organizational advice to improve data management.

1. We have better data than ever on existing state incentive programs and past deals thanks to the Council for Community and Economic Research (C2ER) State Business Incentives Database and Subsidy Tracker 2.0 from Good Jobs First. These resources provide a great start for understanding the incentives environment. Further, many states are striving to improve the quality of reporting on their incentive use, providing new insights into existing programs.

2. We know we still need to improve data collection to assess compliance and outcomes associated with incentive deals, but we first must overcome substantial challenges. These include but certainly aren’t limited to:

  • Applying consistent definitions to the various measure of merit, including how we count jobs (all, new, over a baseline, full-time (by number of hours worked?), part-time), wages and investment
  • Accessing data sources to obtain and validate these measures by project
  • Determining project timing for compliance versus evaluation purposes
  • Tallying the exact cost of each incentive, both on a project and a program basis. This is particularly challenging for many tax–based incentives taken as needed over a multi-year period. Further, should costs be calculated by project? by annual budget impact? by program?
  • Deciding who should collect the data and how the data management effort should be staffed and funded

3. Enabling economic development organizations to address these data challenges requires significant effort, including the following critical steps:

  • Assembling a team with analytical skills as well as subject matter expertise. The team should encompass economic development knowledge, experience working with businesses, political awareness, analytical skills and information system expertise. You’ll probably have to look beyond your own agency to pull together the talent you need.
  • Asking the right questions to guide data improvements by defining the current situation, describing an improved state, focusing on the most important issues that need to be addressed, and agreeing on a desired outcome.
  • Collaborating with other agencies to collect data and share analytics expertise. Development finance entities, tax and revenue departments, and workforce or labor departments are all potential allies for data collection, analysis and verification of incentive use and compliance.
  • Setting expectations at senior levels for analysis and accountability in incentive programs. Staff must know that their efforts to track compliance and performance are important to the economic development mission and the organization’s leaders.

Smart Incentives works every day to provide state and local governments the data and analytics they need to identify what works and to enable sound decisions when awarding incentives. Founder Ellen Harpel is also pleased to be part of the Center for Regional Economic Competitiveness team working with the Pew Charitable Trusts on the Business Incentives Initiative, designed to improve data collection, management and reporting within state incentive programs.

HarpelAbout the Author: Ellen Harpel is President of Business Development Advisors (BDA) and Founder of Smart Incentives. She has over 17 years of experience in the economic development field, working with leaders at the local, state and national levels to increase business investment and job growth in their communities. Contact Ellen at or Follow Ellen on Twitter @SmartIncentives.

The Central Role of Cities in an Urban Century

For the first time in human history the majority of the world’s population lives in urban areas, including 80 percent of Americans and 3 billion people worldwide. And this number is only expected to grow – current projections estimate by a third over the next three decades.

Sotc-urban-dataAs you might expect, increasing population growth in cities not only leads to increasing citizen demands on local government, but an entire new ecosystem in which local government must respond and adapt. From the sharing economy to innovation districts to open data policies and much more, city leaders nationwide are already facing disruptions that are upending traditional industries and economic development patterns.

While urban innovation is exciting and welcome, offering new opportunities for a better quality of life for the nation’s city dwellers, these changes are creating unanticipated regulatory challenges. Entirely new or radically reformed industries are being created that must be examined, understood and incorporated into municipal operations, especially if cities are to achieve a vision of inclusive growth in which everyone in their communities can participate.

Within the technology and transportation sphere for example, driverless cars and personal drones are just two new technologies that are well on their way to being a part of our urban environment. Washington, DC as well as a handful of states have passed laws or are in the process of reacting to this coming shift in the driving environment. And, the FAA is deliberating final regulations for the usage of commercial drones in the nation’s airspace.

In a world where the only constant is change, it is imperative that cities allocate time to understanding and weighing the costs and benefits of these emerging technologies and development trends. Waking up one day in 2025 and looking around, do we want our cities to be socially cohesive places where the benefits of growth and new technologies enhance quality of life across a diverse range of demographic groups, or will it be one where disruptive change serves to benefit only a few?

Thinking About Tomorrow Today

Twenty-five years from now may seem like a long time, but really is it that long off? Granted 25 years ago we were all still wearing Jams Shorts and the Berlin Wall just came down, but on a range of economic and social indicators, events and decisions made then provided the groundwork for where we would be going.

During that time in the 1980’s and 90’s, urban challenges marked by decay and the “great hollowing out” of America’s cities would lead few to anticipate that population would be increasing rather than decreasing in our nation’s cities in a matter of decades. But indicators from the steep decline in crime to pop cultural shifts were early signs of what was to come.

We must anticipate and prepare for what could happen twenty-five years into the future, and use this honed foresight to inform public policy decisions. The impacts of a radically changed environment are at times hard to comprehend, but there is an ability to anticipate.

Will climate change be the largest issue or perhaps economic inequality or changing demographics…or perhaps it will be all three and more? For that matter, will the discussion of the singularity, where machine and human intelligence converge, have already come to pass?

If so, entire labor markets will be even more disrupted than we are currently seeing. Through discussions, analysis and a focus on far-reaching thoughts and “moonshot” ideas, the question of what is next should always be at the fore.

The Coming Trends in Our Urban Century

For these reasons, the National League of Cities will publish a yearly benchmarking report on the State of the Cities that will gather data on trends in local government. Launching at the organization’s annual meeting this year in Austin, this analysis will be built on the annual state of the cities addresses that mayors across the country present on city priority areas. Our cities’ mayoral voices provide a unique window into city priorities now and into the future.

Building from this benchmark, five key areas or global drivers will be delved into over the coming years throughBrooks blog graphics-04 NLC’s City of the Future initiative. The global drivers include: economics, climate, technology, culture and demographics.

We will explore these drivers through the lens of a city’s core focus areas, such as housing, economic development and transportation. NLC will be able to provide cities with a usable resource that aligns directly with the long-term decision-making they are engaged in.

Drawing on in-house expertise, partnerships with leading universities and applied usable research, this frame of analysis will work with and help city leaders anticipate coming trends and changes in their cities. The City of the Future initiative encapsulates a 2020-2025-2040 framework, making sure to provide focus areas that are both near-term and recognizable as well as seeking to anticipate the game changing trends of the decades to come.

Cities want to be prepared for what is coming and inherently have a long-term perspective. Proximity, density, culture, employment and options draw people to cities. The city of the future is about people and the great places they live, work and play in. While the only constant in cities is and will continue to be change, thinking about and anticipating what is coming next is inherent for success in our urban century.

A Note on Methodology

For the past four years, the National League of Cities has published an annual State of the Cities blog series analyzing mayors’ State of the City speeches. These blogs typically analyzed around 30 speeches and identified trends in city policy and leadership.

This year, we decided to expand upon this project. To provide a more detailed and thorough analysis of the State of the Cities in 2014, we conducted a content analysis of 100 mayors’ State of the City speeches and tested for 10 major topics, including Economic Development/Jobs, Transportation and Education. We also tested for the prevalence of subthemes of each topic, such as “accelerators”, “entrepreneurship” and “workforce development” within the Economic Development/Jobs topic. You can read more about the methodology here.

Rainwater HeadshotAbout the author: Brooks Rainwater is the Director of the Center for City Solutions and Applied Research at the National League of Cities. Follow Brooks on Twitter at @BrooksRainwater.

Protecting Federalism: Still the Battle Cry of Cities

The year 1995 was a time of “reinventing government,” with both the Clinton Administration and the new Republican majority Congress pledging to streamline government, balance the federal budget, and shift policy responsibilities to states, local governments and the private sector.

Fundamental questions about the roles and responsibilities of government took center stage in Washington. One that NLC was particularly concerned about was whether federal programs could be reduced or eliminated without shifting the costs to local governments in the form of unfunded mandates.

Then NLC Executive Director Don Borut said cities are essential partners in federalism discussions. “This national discussion on governance provides an important opportunity to restructure the relationship between local government and the federal system.”

pull1The renewed focus on federalism was at time when cities were seeing a rise in regulatory or “coercive federalism” through regulations, mandates and preemptions and a decline in fiscal federalism, as Borut noted years later. From 1945-1995, the number of federal mandates on state and local governments increased from less than 10 to more than 100 (and probably more so today). Since the late 1970s the federal government’s share of city budgets has declined from about 15 percent to 5 percent (and probably less so today).

Thus, NLC developed a framework of principles through which to engage, initiate, and respond to specific structural and programmatic changes in government. One of the principles focused on “effective federalism,” meaning “not leaving national problems on the doorstep of local governments.”

Cities saw a major victory on the unfunded mandates front in 1995. The culmination of nearly two years work by NLC was celebrated at the 1995 Congressional City Conference with the news that the House and Senate Conference Committee had reached agreement on the final version of the Unfunded Mandates Reform Act (UMRA). In fact, President Clinton’s speech to NLC members was his first public endorsement of the bill and he guaranteed his signature.

NLC Second Vice President Greg Lashutka, Mayor, Columbus, OH said, “What was once the battle cry of overburdened cities and towns – no more unfunded mandates – is now on its way to becoming law of the land.”

A few days after the conference, President Clinton signed the landmark legislation before a jubilant crowd of state and local leaders from across the nation, including then NLC board member Clarence Anthony.

“As the long-awaited moment approached, sunshine broke from behind a wall of clouds, the Rose Garden was flooded with light, and clear skies graced the ceremony – an appropriate atmosphere for the signing of legislation that for the first time holds Congress accountable for the mandates it imposes on state and local governments and aims to prevent future unfunded mandates,” described an NLC news article.

With such optimism in 1995, the question then becomes, has the law lived up to its expectations? Hold that thought.

Over the course of the next several years, NLC joined with the other “Big Seven” state and local organizations in working with the Administration on additional guidance for implementing laws and developing rules that affect cities.

To that end, in August 1999, President Clinton issued Executive Order 13132: Federalism to “further the policies of the Unfunded Mandates Reform Act” and to “ensure that the principles of federalism established by the Framers guide the executive departments and agencies in the formulation and implementation of policies.”

In addition to enumerating the basic principles of federalism, the Executive Order directed federal agencies to set up a consultation process “to ensure meaningful and timely input by State and local officials in the development of regulatory policies that have federalism implications.”

Under UMRA, an annual regulatory cost of over $100 million, in aggregate, to state and local government triggers an intergovernmental consultation process between the agency and elected officials.  Under the Executive Order, federal agencies adopted guidance consistent with UMRA—a $100 million threshold for triggering the consultation process.

UMRA and the Executive Order in Review – EPA Does it Right

So, how effective has UMRA and the Executive Order together been in curtailing unfunded mandates and promoting the intergovernmental partnership?

Since 1997, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has assessed whether legislation considered by Congress contains unfunded mandates and whether any unfunded mandate costs exceeds the UMRA threshold.

According to CBO, in the 17 years since UMRA became effective, there have been 13 laws with intergovernmental mandates that had costs estimated to exceed the statutory threshold, the last of which was enacted in 2010. Examples include increases in the minimum wage; minimum standards for issuing drivers licenses, identification cards and vital statistics documents; and requirements on rail and transit owners and operators.

As an elected or city official, you might say to yourself, “I know there have been more unfunded mandates placed on local governments than that!”

Well, there are limitations to how UMRA defines an unfunded mandate, and some federal requirements that are not considered mandates under UMRA have still imposed burdens or costs on local governments. Congress has been pretty careful in the way it structures laws to avoid creating mandates in a technical sense. For example, the No Child Left Behind Act has obligations that must be met as a condition for receiving federal grants, but it is not considered an unfunded mandate under UMRA.

While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), perhaps more than any other agency, has been criticized for imposing a significant number of costly unfunded mandates on state and local governments, it is a model for effective federalism in that the process it uses today for developing rules serves to strengthen the intergovernmental partnership.

pull2Since the Executive Order was issued in 1999 through 2008, only two EPA regulations were found to have aggregate costs to state and local governments above the $100 million threshold for triggering the intergovernmental consultation process. Yet, state and local governments know that the costs of complying with federal environmental rules and regulations are high and the number of unfunded regulatory mandates is growing.

In 2008 the agency undertook a review of its Federalism guidance, including soliciting comments on whether to lower the threshold for intergovernmental consultation. NLC, along with the other “Big Seven” state and local government groups supported lowering the threshold in order to have more regular consultation with elected officials, earlier in the regulatory process.

In November 2008, EPA announced that it was lowering the intergovernmental consultation threshold to $25 million in the “spirit” of federalism to improve the way the agency defines, conducts and makes regulatory decisions.

“By lowering the threshold, local governments could be consulted on a more regular basis on issues of mutual importance to the quality of life in the communities we both aim to serve and the fiscal impact of those decisions,” said NLC President Kathleen Novak.

“State and local officials often serve as the ‘front line’ managers of federally mandated environmental regulations,” said EPA Deputy Administrator Marcus Peacock. “If we want good rules, early consultation with these partners is crucial.”

Since the new, lower EPA Federalism guidance went into effect, NLC and the other state and local government groups were consulted with on 16 different rulemaking procedures before a proposed rule was even written, an opportunity that rarely existed before.

Building on Success

EPA’s action came at a time when state and local officials were calling for a stronger working relationship with federal partners in solving major environmental challenges.

The consultation is important. The early input is the rulemaking process gives cities a seat at the table and a say in shaping a rule from the beginning, which NLC has long advocated for and which strengthens the intergovernmental partnership.

Federal preemption of local authority and unfunded mandates from Congress and all the federal agencies are still serious concerns for local governments. UMRA was a victory for cities, but it has not stopped unfunded mandates in a broad sense. The lower EPA threshold for intergovernmental consultation was a victory for cities, which all agencies should follow.

With the midterm elections a few months away and as the nation gears up for the next presidential election, perhaps it is time for a new, new national discussion on federalism for the 21st Century.

Carolyn Berndt

About the author: Carolyn Berndt is the Program Director for Infrastructure and Sustainability on the NLC Federal Advocacy team. She leads NLC’s advocacy, regulatory, and policy efforts on energy and environmental issues, including water infrastructure and financing, air and water quality, climate change, and energy efficiency. Follow Carolyn on Twitter at @BerndtCarolyn.

State of the Cities 2014 – Methodology

For the past four years, the National League of Cities has published an annual State of the Cities blog series analyzing mayors’ State of the City speeches. These blogs typically analyzed around 30 speeches and identified trends in city policy and leadership.

map-sotc-14This year, we decided to expand upon this project. To provide a more detailed and thorough analysis of the State of the Cities in 2014, we conducted a content analysis of 100 mayors’ State of the City speeches and tested for 10 major topics, including Economic Development/Jobs, Transportation and Education. We also tested for the prevalence of subthemes of each topic, such as “accelerators”, “entrepreneurship” and “workforce development” within the Economic Development/Jobs topic.

To establish a database of State of the City speeches, we used a web search to find every State of the City speech given between Jan. 1 and March 31, 2014, which had a transcript of the speech available online. We found 105 speeches that met the criteria and selected five speeches at random to be excluded from the analysis. The final 100 speeches represent cities with diverse populations and from varying geographic locations; there are at least 20 speeches from each of four population categories (<50,000, 50,000-99,999, 100,000-299,999, 300,000+) and geographic regions (Northeast, Midwest, South, West).

sotc-chart-14-fIn constructing the content analysis, we created guidelines for coding each of the 10 major topics. During this process, we referred to the work of Sarah Beth Gehl and Katherine Willoughby, who conducted a content analysis of State of the State speeches in 2013 . Through our content analysis, we were able to answer three main questions for each topic: the percent of speeches “covering” the topic, the percent with “significant coverage” of the topic, and the average percent of speech content devoted to the topic. We then analyzed these findings, as well as the prevalence of subthemes, with regard to the population and geographic region of the cities to provide further context.

Micah-headshotAbout the author: Micah Farver is an intern for the Center for City Solutions and Applied Research at the National League of Cities.


A Mayor’s Pledge to Support Successful Aging

This is a guest post written by Paul H. Irving, President, Milken Institute.


This month, the Milken Institute’s Best Cities for Successful Aging Advisory Committee will ask mayors across the nation to sign a pledge that promises to improve life for older adults and residents of all ages.

Cities are at the front lines in addressing the consequences of the rapid, unprecedented aging of populations in the United States and across the world. Enabling successful aging is a central issue for urban communities and municipal leaders. The Best Cities for Successful Aging Pledge unites mayors around a commitment to enhance life for the world’s largest-ever population of older adults and ensure a better future for our cities.

The Pledge acknowledges both great challenges and great opportunities for city leaders. In conjunction with the second edition of its often-cited report, “Best Cities for Successful Aging,” to be released later this year, the Milken Institute will recognize forward-thinking mayors who sign the Pledge and celebrate their efforts to promote purpose and well-being for their aging residents. The “Best Cities” report, which compares the nation’s metropolitan areas on data-driven criteria, receives wide attention in major national and local newspaper, television, radio and social media outlets.

As we initiate the Pledge, the stakes are clear. By 2030 one in five Americans will be over 65, most of them living in urban environments. Worldwide, this older age group by mid-century will outnumber children under 14, due in large measure to declining birthrates and expanding longevity resulting from medical, technical and public health advances.

In the United States, older adults increasingly concentrate in America’s urban settings, where we see the emergence of Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities, or NORCs. These surroundings profoundly influence older residents’ ability to age well and enjoy healthy, engaged and fulfilling lives.

To improve lives through strengthened cities requires urban environments that are physically, economically and socially attuned to the well-being of mature residents. An age-friendly city optimizes health and security as well as engagement and productivity. It offers housing options and social services as well as opportunities for education, work, volunteerism and social interaction. These goals hold vast opportunity for our cities—and require new thinking as well as strong, committed mayoral leadership.

Too often we overlook older adults’ potential to improve society for people of all ages. We see only stereotypes of decline and disengagement. Mayors and other municipal leaders must promulgate the truth: Older residents can be an invaluable asset to their communities. We encourage government leaders to discard outmoded notions of aging that fail to consider this potential.

Older people today are healthier and more vibrant than in generations past. They have much to offer—not just the wisdom of age, but the practical experience and skills that can enrich families as well as work, educational and social settings. They offer a wealth of mentoring and training opportunities in the workforce, along with perspectives that enhance intergenerational teams. In encore careers and entrepreneurial ventures, they help drive economic growth. In education and volunteer activities, they contribute to society’s well-being.

Today’s mayors have a chance to help their communities reimagine what it means to grow older. With eyes open to 21st century reality, innovative officials can create environments that embrace the contributions of aging populations.

Through cross-agency efforts, cities will feature welcoming neighborhoods where age-friendly streets and shops encourage older people’s social engagement. Through upgraded infrastructure and communications, cities will enable people to age independently in their homes. By integrating health and social services into overall planning, cities will foster healthy aging. And through transportation and housing options, cities will promote mobility, safety and convenience, in the bargain enabling older adults to remain involved in their communities.

The role of mayors in this great urban challenge cannot be overstated. Leadership is paramount in championing a new model of aging that incorporates the many assets older people bring. Mayors’ ground-level experience with demographic transitions opens the door to solutions that can be replicated at the state, national and global levels.

Cities are economic engines and centers of purpose. Urban leaders can ensure that older residents contribute to the economy and strengthen civil society, applying their abilities and knowledge to keeping cities strong and vibrant. Our mayors can harness the benefits of longevity and embrace the upside of aging.

It’s time to make successful aging a priority in our cities. We look forward to celebrating the commitment and vision of mayors who sign the Best Cities for Successful Aging Pledge.

Paul-IrvingAbout the author: Paul H. Irving is president and a member of the board of the Milken Institute. Irving’s work to improve aging societies has been featured in outlets such as PBS Newshour, Forbes, CBS, NBC, CNN, The Los Angeles Times, USA Today and The Wall Street Journal. He is the recipient of the 2014 Janet L. Witkin Award from Affordable Living for the Aging. Irving’s book, “The Upside of Aging – How Long Life is Changing the World of Health, Work, Innovation, Policy, and Purpose,” was recently published by John Wiley & Sons.