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A day after the president's State of the Union address, both Republicans and Democrats predict most of his proposals won't go very far.
The gridlock in Washington has left the heavy lifting of government to more local levels, the cities and towns across the country.
We wanted to find out what some local leaders think about the issues raised last night, among others, what the economy and infrastructure look like to those managing it.
For perspective on that, we are joined now by two mayors. They are Democrat Stephen Benjamin. He is the mayor of Columbia, South Carolina. He's had the job since 2010. And Richard Berry is mayor of Albuquerque, New Mexico. He has been at his city's helm since 2009. He was that city's first Republican mayor in three decades.
And we welcome you both to the program.
MAYOR STEPHEN BENJAMIN, Columbia, South Carolina:
MAYOR RICHARD BERRY, Albuquerque, New Mexico:
Glad to be here.
So, Mayor Berry, let's start first with a question about the president's speech last night. What did you hear that you think you could support that sounded good to you? What did you think that you couldn't support?
Well, as a Republican leader that actually takes pride in being able to work with the White House, there were some things that I heard that are really exciting to me, because we're working on those in our city.
Women's pay equity, for example, I think is an important issue nationally. We were the first city in the country really to put forward an incentive for our local companies to really make that a priority.
From the standpoint of taxing the capital gains, certainly can support a middle-class tax cut, but as a small business person myself, with my wife and I having really worked hard for 20 years to build a business, I think he's off-base with the capital gains tax increase, because I think that's really going to hurt Main Street and it's going to hurt those that are really trying to invest to create jobs in our country.
Even though the purpose of it would be to put money in the pockets of the middle class?
Right, but you can do that in any number of ways.
So, once again, I think we're all heading towards some similar goals, but just maybe some different philosophies on how we get here.
So, Mayor Benjamin, what about you? What did you hear that you liked, that you could support, and what gave you pause?
Well, certainly, heard a great deal in the president's speech that we could support, pay equity, obviously making child care more affordable, making access to higher education, community college being potentially free, a focus on apprenticeships and getting more people into the work force and starting earlier directing children towards some real opportunities in the 21st century economy.
All of those were very appealing. What I wanted to hear more of — and we will certainly wait for the president's budget — and I think Richard would agree with me here — is hear more talk about infrastructure and the way in which we finance infrastructure.
As you know, over 90 percent of America's gross domestic product is created in cities and metropolitan economies. And our ability to invest in infrastructure, water, sewer or roads using the tax-exempt municipal bonds is essential to America's prosperity and our ability to compete globally.
So, we want to make sure that our message, that we protect that 100-year-old tax exemption on municipal bonds. Local governments don't tax federal debt, and we're asking the federal government not to tax municipal debt.
And infrastructure, it's interesting you raise that. I know that is an issue for you in Columbia.
What about in Albuquerque, Mayor Berry? How much is that an issue is that? Tell us about your economy.
It's a big issue, infrastructure.
And we just had a great example of our community about — understood that you can't do just it by yourself anymore. We can't just rely on dollars coming from Washington. We just did a major infrastructure project where the taxpayers of my city and the state, people in the legislature and our governor teamed with the federal government to get things done.
We need to do more of that. Yesterday, our governor outlined a great infrastructure proposal for the state. But we have an aging infrastructure in New Mexico and in the country, and we need to do more. And mayors are really at the center of that. And I agree with the mayor wholeheartedly. We need to protect those tax-free municipal bonds that the cities can put out and we need to do more in our country to rebuild the infrastructure.
So, is federal help on infrastructure going to be important to…
It's vitally important, but we have to have a target that's set.
And the problem we have had in the last couple of years is, with continuing resolutions and not having things solidified in Washington, we have some uncertainty and it's difficult to finance the projects that we need to do. And this is where I think mayors have some really important lessons for Washington in general, for our friends in Congress and for the president and others.
Let's work together and maybe take some of the bipartisanship out of some of the discussions and get some of that common sense from Main Street going up here.
What about that?
Oh, I couldn't agree with Richard more.
The reality is, is that there's no Republican way to pick up the trash or Democratic way to pick up the trash. It's got to be picked up. And in America's cities, we have got to get it done. Columbia, South Carolina, is experiencing some significant economic growth right now, over $1 billion investment in our downtown just in the past four years.
Our unemployment rate's been cut by 40 percent over the last four years. We're — Columbia is on fire, and I don't mean it in the General Sherman sense, although…
… although next month, we celebrate 100 — we commemorate 150 years since the burning of Columbia.
The city has risen like a phoenix from the ashes. And it's because we don't allow partisan gridlock to shut us down. We realize that we have to get things done and at the U.S. Conference of Mayors, we work across the aisles on a regular basis to get things done.
Well, we know — I know you, Mayor Benjamin. I have been reading about what has been going on in Columbia. You have put some emphasis on job training. We know the employment rate has — employment story has picked up in Columbia.
Is there federal assistance that's helped you that you are looking for or that you don't need?
You know, we have worked well with the administration on the transportation piece you mentioned earlier. We received an $11 million infrastructure grant, a TIGER grant that's helped us, that's going to help us complete a $40 million project to redevelop our city.
There are some really exciting apprenticeship opportunities that Secretary Perez at the Department of Labor, a $100 million grant opportunity that he's sharing with mayors all around the country. And, really, you know, a four-year college is not for every young person. I know some young people who go get a certificate from a community college in a particular discipline, and they will make more money than someone graduating from one of our universities with a four-year degree.
Making sure that we create opportunities for everyone, regardless of backgrounds, regardless of strikes they may have against them, give them a chance to participate in this wonderful country's economic prosperity is our goal.
And to Albuquerque, because, again, I'm reading that you're looking at job training as something you want to expand.
We're a city that needs to diversify our economy. We were overly relying on federal government spending. Some of the gridlock that happens in Washington has, frankly hurt our city. So we're trying to bring more entrepreneurship to the forefront.
And Mayor Benjamin and myself and others, really, this is an area where we can really agree with the White House, job training, skills training, taking our work force and helping them work through, whether it's the minimum wage band and move up economically, be more economically mobile.
This is what mayors, Democrats and Republicans, around the country are on, so that we can set the basis for this 21st century economy and give people the skills that they need to succeed, rather than just putting another program in place.
Does it matter for your cities whether Democrats and Republicans cooperate more in Washington?
It's absolutely vital. I couldn't — it cannot be overemphasized.
And I think, once again, this is where mayors have an important lesson for Washington. We're getting it done in our cities. Mayor Benjamin and I work together. Democrat majors have to balance budget. Republican mayors are working on homeless initiatives. We are not allowing ourselves to be pigeonholed. And this is something that I think is much needed in our country.
Do you say that to your legislators?
Oh, absolutely. Working together, working across the aisle is essential.
There are no quick fixes for any issues we face. These are real complex issues, some that took years to create, and they're going to take years to fix. So, long-term solutions are key.
We have been able to in our city. We are required by law to balance our budgets. I know that Mayor Berry is as well. So, we balanced our budgets. For five years, we have had a budget surplus in Columbia, eight years without a tax increase.
That comes with some planning. The ability to be able to do that, along with a state government that is being a participant, and certainly with the ability to plan according to a long-term federal budget would be an incredible blessing.
Well, we're glad to have both of you here to tell some of the story of what's happening.
Mayor Steve Benjamin from Columbia, Mayor Richard Berry from Albuquerque, we thank you both.
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