Local Officials behind Growing Support for CDBG, but Process and Partisanship Remain Significant Challenge

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For the 7000 cities and towns that receive Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds each year, directly or indirectly, concerns are growing that that the foundation for transformative community projects is beginning to crumble.  Over the last two years, Congress has cut funding for the CDBG program over 25 percent, from about $4 billion to $2.9 billion, which is divided among 1,200 cities and 50 states.  For a program with enormous, bipartisan support from leaders elected to local office, the recent drop in support from Congress, as measured by House and Senate letters on spending priorities, appears well out of step with hometown priorities.

Every year, Members of Congress are given a deadline to tell the House and Senate Appropriations Committee’s what programs, if any, they consider funding priorities.  Appropriators take these recommendations into consideration as they write spending bills.  Unfortunately, growing pressure to reduce the federal deficit has complicated the traditional processes by which Members of Congress signal support for programs.  In the case of CDBG, the number of Senators and Representatives willing to sign annual CDBG support letters to the Appropriations Committee has been shrinking.  Worse yet, the growing partisan divide threatens to pin the fate of programs like CDBG to just one party at the federal level, despite support across parties, demographics, and sectors at the local level.  The divide is reflected in how increasingly lopsided Congressional CDBG support letters have become.

Last week, however, marked a small turnaround in those trends thanks in large part to calls from local elected officials and state municipal leagues.  In the House, the Pennsylvania delegation led the way.  Congressman Robert Brady (D-PA) wrote and circulated a letter arguing for greater federal investment in CDBG grants at $3.4 billion for FY 2013.  Congressman Lou Barletta (R-PA) joined Brady as the top Republican to cosign the letter and, unlike last year, gave the request an important bipartisan boost in the House.  In total, 137 Members of Congress signed the Brady-Barletta CDBG support letter to the House Appropriations Committee, an increase of more than 50 compared to last year.

In the Senate, as in past years, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) authored and circulated a letter urging Senate Appropriators to raise CDBG funding to $3.3 billion for FY 2013.  Senator Scott Brown (R-MA), responding to significant outreach from local officials and others in his state, joined Senator Leahy in signing the letter.  In total, 33 Senators signed the Leahy-Brown CDBG support letter to the Senate Appropriations Committee, a gain of 5 over last year.

The potential impact of the House and Senate CDBG support letters on FY 2013 funding depends on many factors, including how budget sequestration is dealt with.  And bipartisan support for CDBG remains much too lopsided.  However, lifting the trend in Congressional support for CDBG is a significant accomplishment and, more importantly, a necessary first step to reversing the downward trend in funding.

Another step, almost as important as supporting CDBG directly, is to ask if the overall funding level allocated to each Appropriations Subcommittee is adequate to fund federal programs at sufficient levels.  This overall funding level, called a 302(b) allocation, can largely determine the fate of federal funding for programs before appropriations bills are even written.  For instance, programs administered by HUD and the Department of Transportation are funded annually under one single 302(b) allocation.  In recent years, community planning and development programs like CDBG have not fared well in this division.  Rather than cut funding across the board for all programs when 302(b) allocations waver, Congress has, reasonably, chosen to maintain investments in job-creating transportation programs and sufficient funding for existing housing rental vouchers.  Generally, then, any overall reduction in funds necessarily fall on programs comprising the “UD” side of HUD, such as CDBG, HOME, and Sustainable Communities Grants.

Earlier this year, in an effort to provide Appropriators with the necessary additional resources to fulfill House and Senate CDBG funding request letters, NLC spearheaded a large coalition of HUD and DOT stakeholders to urge Congress to increase the overall Transportation-HUD 302(b) allocation.  A total of 178 organizations joined NLC on our 302(b) letter to Congressional Leaders.

That coalition of organizations, however, will only hold for a handful of weeks.  After the 302(b) allocation is announced, each of the 178 groups that found common ground on the overall DOT-HUD allocation will split apart to urge Congress to direct any resulting new funds to their organizations own unique top federal priorities.  Under this system, organizations that manage to beat the drum consistently for their priorities are more likely to succeed than those that advocate in fits and spurts.  In other words, anytime is a good time to remind your Congressional delegation what CDBG is behind in your hometown because at least 177 public interest groups are doing the same thing for other priorities.

NLC expects Congress to set 302(b) allocations sometime in the next three weeks.  Soon after, Appropriators will release their first drafts of FY 2013 spending bills, revealing funding levels for individual federal programs like CDBG.  After that, local leaders and stakeholders will have a small number of additional opportunities through amendments and House/Senate negotiations to impact funding for their priorities.

The letters and lists of those who signed can be found on NLC’s website at http://www.nlc.org/influence-federal-policy/advocacy/legislative-advocacy/city-leaders-urge-congress-to-support-hometown-investments-via-cdbg