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Despite Good Times, NLC President Tells Cities To Keep Fighting.

"We have grown in size, in stature, and in results; but we face ever greater threats to our historic and traditional authority," which is the cornerstone of our ability to represent our communities.

"It is the best of times. It is the worst of times," NLC President Brian concluded in his final message to members of the National League of Cities.

Keeping Focused

Explaining himself, O'Neill pointed out that it is the best of times because membership in NLC is at an all time high and Congress of Cities participation has also grown. He then talked briefly about important positive news for cities on the issues of the Internet Tax Freedom Act, takings, and utility deregulation. "We played defense this year," he said. "And we were good at it."

"Time, however, does not give us the luxury of patting ourselves on the back," the Philadelphia councilman warned.

These legislative victories only represent dodging bullets, not real or sustained progress toward clarifying or strengthening cities' roles for the future, O'Neill suggested. Cities must not be satisfied to win a few battles. Instead, they should prepare themselves to fight for their fights and for the good of their communities against what he called "a dysfunctional federal government."

For those who might think that an unfair characterization, O'Neill suggested that any group or individual who believes the federal government is going to create a federal budget which "saves Social Security," is neglecting to notice that until now, "Social Security has been saving the budget."

Time for Partnership

O'Neill called for a new federal-state-local partnership built on the premise "that we all represent the same people." Federal officials, he said, "must work with us. That's what partners do."

However, instead of acting like partners the NLC President believes federal officials are pushing local government onto dangerous ground, challenging long-standing views of local authority and chipping away at the local sales tax, which is the chief mechanism local governments use to fund everything from education to public safety to trash collection.

NLC members, O'Neill believes, from cities large and small, need to build on the past year's victories to achieve lasting protection from federal preemptions of local authority, particularly on issues of Internet sales tax and takings. While NLC efforts were successful in derailing harmful takings legislation and securing cities a place on an Internet sales tax commission and a three-year review period, these measures are not going away anytime soon, O'Neill predicted. Worse, he fears they portend more harmful action against cities now that these basic local rights have been called into question.

Preserving Local Authority

Much of the legislation now threatens to "take our local authority, or revenue streams," O'Neill explained. He noted that the economy is changing rapidly, increasing federal revenues dramatically. Citing the growing gap between federal and municipal revenues, he warned that the federal government had no understanding of the consequences for families or businesses.

O'Neill cited two issues to illustrate his theme:

* Takings legislation in the 105th Congress represented a clear "attempt to federalize local zoning. It passed the House and was stopped in-the Senate."

* With the Internet Tax Freedom Act, "for the first time Congress decided there'd be one business they could tax but we couldn't," he said. "That's not fair."

O'Neill compared the two big legislative threats to locomotives which city officials were able to stop thanks to hard work. However, O'Neill reminded local officials that those trains are sitting on the tracks, with the potential to run local authority out on a rail if the next Congress wants them back on track.
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Title Annotation:Brian O'Neill
Author:Ryder, Julianne Ryan
Publication:Nation's Cities Weekly
Date:Dec 14, 1998
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