Federal funds tight, City Council told

U.S. Rep. Adam Smith (D-9th District) joined the Tacoma City Council for Tuesday’s study session on the outlook for the upcoming 108th U.S. Congress and the city’s federal legislative agenda. Also on hand was Len Simon, Tacoma’s lobbyist in Washington, D.C.

There are budget problems at all levels of government, Smith told the City Council, saying wrestling with the federal budget crisis would be the top priority for Congress during the upcoming session.

Smith said the federal government has run up a $170 billion deficit for the fiscal year 2002 and at least the same amount was predicted for fiscal year 2003.

With the exception of Defense and Homeland Security, Smith said all other departments are “tight.”

The Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security are getting the funds they need in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 and a possible war with Iraq.

If last year’s tax cuts are made permanent, Smith said the federal government would lose between $1.5-$2 trillion dollars over the next 10 years and another $4 trillion in the following 10 years.

“If that happens, it’s game, set and match,” Smith said.

Locally, he said the top issues are transportation, health care and infrastructure.

“I think that’s one of the biggest priorities in the region,” Smith said of the state’s transportation crisis.

Last month, Washington voters gave a thumbs down to Referendum 51, a transportation improvement plan touted by Gov. Gary Locke and former Sen. Slade Gorton as a solution to some of the worst traffic congestion in the area.

“Personally, I think access is the biggest issue,” he said, commenting on the state of health care in the state.

He said the city’s outlook for receiving federal funds for infrastructure improvements was “bleak.”

“Unfortunately, the federal government’s not stepping up to that,” he stated.

Part of the problem – aside from the actual recent economic difficulties the nation is going through – is the perception by the public that the government does not spend money well, Smith explained, adding the federal government needs to work on spending money more efficiently.

On the issue of a future local tax on merchandise purchased over the Internet, Smith said he thought it would be fairly easy to come up with a fair way to collect and distribute such a tax.

“I think you could do that,” he said. “Doing anything to make collecting taxes easier is never popular.”

“Thank you for your time,” Mayor Bill Baarsma told Smith shortly before the representative left the study session. “We feel honored.”

Despite the negative financial outlook and the changed political environment in Washington, D.C. – Republicans took control of the U.S. Senate during November’s election – Simon remained cautiously optimistic.

“I think the city has always done well regardless of which party is in control of Congress,” Simon said.

He did predict that Sen. Leader Trent Lott would not retain his position as majority leader, due to recent racially offensive remarks the 61-year-old Mississippian made.

At a 100th birthday tribute to Republican Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, Lott said that nation would have been better off if it had elected Thurmond as president in 1948. Thurmond ran that year as a segregationist.

The next session of the U.S. Congress begins on Jan. 7, 2003.