As cities' struggles persist, Congress must act, mayors say

L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa

Nearly a fourth of the nation’s metropolitan areas -- including the Los Angeles region -- will struggle for five more years to regain jobs lost in the Great Recession, according to an economic forecast issued by the U.S. Conference of Mayors on Wednesday.

With the mayors gathered in Washington for their winter meeting, the forecast is part of their effort to prod Congress into passing jobs-creation legislation.

"Congress has jumped ship," said the conference president, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, likening lawmakers to the captain of the wrecked Italian cruise ship accused of leaving the vessel before its passengers were evacuated. "The economy is sinking as we speak, and they’re sitting on a lifeboat refusing to throw out a life preserver to the American people."

But the mayors face a difficult time getting a divided Congress to do anything in an election year with  partisan tensions running high. Further, they face an uphill battle staving off more federal aid cuts sought by congressional Republicans determined to reduce the federal budget deficit.

"Nobody stops you on the street and says, 'What are you doing about the deficit and the debt?' People ask you, 'How are you going to help me get a job?' " Villaraigosa said at a media breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor.

"If you were to grade the Congress last year, they’d get an F," Villaraigosa said. "There’s been virtually nothing done to put people back to work."

Later, at a news conference at the Capital Hilton, the L.A. mayor said: "Not all spending is equal. The fact is we do have to cut our deficits .... But you can't cut your way out of this crisis. You've got to make investments, too.''

"There are smart cuts and there are dumb cuts,'' added Scott Smith, Republican mayor of Mesa, Ariz., who joined Villaraigosa at a news conference. "Smart cuts are cuts of inefficiencies. Dumb cuts are cuts when you cut the meat out of programs that ... create economic growth.''

Villaraigosa continued his criticism of Congress in a speech to other mayors -- a speech that included references to Rodney Dangerfield (cities aren't getting enough respect) and Yogi Berra (congressional inaction was "deja vu all over again'').

The Democratic mayor put most of the blame on Republicans who control the House but said members of his own party also haven’t done enough.

Villaraigosa called on Congress to pass a transportation bill -- one that would include money he has sought to speed expansion of L.A.'s regional transportation system -- and to extend the payroll tax cut and unemployment benefits. He also urged Congress to preserve funding for the Community Block Grant program, a key funding source for local efforts to generate jobs, revitalize run-down neighborhoods and help low-income residents.

He said he was open to finding ways to reduce government spending and increase revenue, such as closing tax loopholes, but considered infrastructure spending critical to the nation's economic recovery.

U.S. nonfarm payrolls are projected to grow 1.3% this year, not fast enough to reduce the unemployment rate below 8% nationally, according to a report  by IHS Global Insight, which predicts that by the end of the year the nation will have gained back nearly half of the jobs lost in the Great Recession.

"Despite this progress," Villaraigosa said, "the recovery is slow and it’s uneven."

For nearly 80 metropolitan areas, full recovery is more than five years away. "The recovery is very uneven across U.S. regions, with the southeastern and southwesten metro [area]s, who were the most affected by the housing bubble, looking ahead to years of recovery," the report says.

The report predicts that the Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana metropolitan area will, by the end of this year, recover only about a fifth of the jobs lost in the Great Recession.

Villaraigosa bemoaned the hyper-partisanship in Washington and delivered a pitch for funding high-speed rail. He and other mayors were due to meet with President Obama at the White House later.

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-- Richard Simon in Washington

Photo: L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Credit: Bryan Chan / Los Angeles Times

 
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Rene Lynch has been an editor and writer in Metro, Sports, Business, Calendar and Food. @ReneLynch

As an editor and reporter, Michael Muskal has covered local, national, economic and foreign issues at three newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times. @latimesmuskal


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