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Q&A with a Republican mayor on the debt-ceiling deal

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SOURCE: OFFICE OF MAYOR SCOTT SMITH The debt-ceiling deal promises to make major federal spending cuts. But many of these cuts will also be felt at the state and local level, as each level of government passes on the pain to the next. To get a local perspective on federal cutbacks, I spoke with Mayor Scott Smith of Mesa, Ariz. (pop. 439,000). A Republican businessman, Smith is also the second vice-president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, a non-partisan organization representing cities with populations greater than 30,000. Though the U.S. Conference of Mayors supported the passage of the debt-ceiling bill, Scott raised serious concerns about the federal spending cuts that are on deck.

Broad federal spending cuts are bound to affect all levels of government, but we didn’t get to hear much from governors or mayors during the debt-ceiling debate in Washington. What’s your reaction to the passage of the final deal?

First of all, we’re certainly grateful there was a deal completed, but I don’t get that exited about it – we’ve lowered the bar quite a bit when we’ve patted ourselves on the back for avoiding catastrophe. I’m very concerned on the city level as to how the spending cuts play out. We have to balance our budgets. We can’t borrow, and we have made real changes and real cuts.

States like Arizona have needed to balance their budgets and have already made major spending cuts. Could you explain how decisions higher up -- in Arizona and Washington -- affect you in Mesa? What’s the connection between local government and federal/state spending?

Most cities have long ago thrown out the sacred cows. We’ve gone after public safety [programs] that before were never touched. We’ve had to restructure to change the way we do business as we’ve adjusted to our new reality. Our concern is that cities, we’re the low man on the totem pole.

Cities are where social ills and problems come to roost. Cuts in federal programs and budget and filter down to us. But the problems don’t go away. We still have homeless veterans on the streets with mental illnesses that we have to deal with. Right now, federal and states share that burden, through grants, etc. If those things are eliminated, the problems still exist. We don’t have the money to deal with them right now. If we’re no longer sharing the burden [with the state and federal government], we’re taking on the full burden.

Washington itself is completely immune to cuts except for the areas they hear most about, entitlements. So the areas they put off limits are entitlements….By passing down the burden to the cities of America [Washington legislators] basically made themselves immune to the real impact of those cuts, that’s our biggest concern. We know that the federal deficit needs to be reduced, and spending brought in line, federal government never shown ability to make smart cuts. We get dumped on.

So what kinds of changes have you already had to make? Give us an idea of what things are like on the local level in the face of this belt-tightening.

We can’t do street repairs. The state has taken street funds away. We’ve had to forestall public safety programs, because of federal cuts—specialized training in homeland security. Our homeland security efforts are an integral part of a web between local police, state police, and the federal government. If those grants go away, someone else has to cover that burden.

The only places we get direct federal money anymore…are homeland security and community development block grants, like for the homeless men’s shelter. On the state level, we have gas tax funds that have been redirected, so they’re no longer available to fix the roads.

Now the debt-ceiling deal promises to reduce federal spending by $1 billion upfront, with major reductions promised in the near future.  How do you anticipate dealing with the belt-tightening that’s to come?

Just because money isn’t allocated or appropriated in Washington doesn’t mean the problem doesn’t still exist. Medicaid—we can use funds at whatever level possible, but it’s not going to eliminate the fact that people are sick. Right now, if we have a homeless man with mental health issues, he can get taken to the men’s shelter, which uses a combination local, state, and federal funds. If [state and federal funds] go away, the shelter shuts down, and our police officers and firefighters have to deal with them. It’s much more inefficient and expensive that way.

I’m saying that as a Republican mayor who doesn’t look to Washington to bail us out of anything. There’s a smart way of doing cuts that would save money. But cut funding [indiscriminately], and we’ll have to spend a lot more money and pull police officers out of street.

Some local governments have resorted to raising property taxes to deal with budget shortfalls. In Arizona, there already been some city councils that have agreed to these kind of tax hikes in recent months. Would this be something you’d consider?

Raising taxes is not an option—the citizens would have to do it. We have to reduce services….we just simply can’t raise the revenues, and we shouldn’t have to. Nothing more is more frustrating than seeing a state legislator cutting spending without raising taxes when they’ve just shifted the burden to cities. You have to reduce services, and we are the level of government that provides the most basic services to our citizens. That’s one of the great things of being in city government. But you’re on the bottom of the food chain, and you have to accept the fact that you get blamed for a lot of things. It’s bipartisan, too. It’s hard to tell who’s a Republican and a Democrat. We all tell the same story—we fill potholes.

The upshot of the debt-ceiling deal is the message that we must reduce the deficit by cutting federal spending, preferably sooner than later. Why do you think the national debate has moved so much in this direction?

The discussion on state and federal level is much more ideological and much more political. It’s changed the way that discussions take place. And for some things on the federal level that have an indirect impact on citizens, it’s a lack of accountability. If I miss picking up my neighbor’s trash, I hear about it…I’m accountable for every little decision. [In Washington], where’s the accountability? There’s a detachment between election results and what people think they were sent to Washington to do.

The political crisis over the debt ceiling has been resolved for the time being.  But Washington lawmakers will be forced to make a lot more decisions about revenues and spending in the next few months, with more showdowns to come. What would you want them to keep in mind?

I would hope they would realize that the objective is to create a prosperous America. I’m a conservative Republican, and I believe that’s best achieved through a limited government, low regulations, and low taxation. But [such principles] are not the objective—that’s the means to an objective. It seems in Washington, that is the objective, when real objective is to set the stage for economic growth.

Interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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