Mayor says D.C. trip productive
Cape Coral Mayor Jim Burch left for Washington D.C. on Saturday with one mission — promote Cape Coral.
He returned Wednesday with something invaluable — the ear of influential Congressmen in the midst of concocting the federal economic stimulus legislation.
Burch said his intention was always to push the interests of the city at the annual U.S. Mayors Conference, but changed his approach slightly after hearing that state legislators were counting on federal stimulus funds to help balance the budget.
“That changed my course of action. I brought that up the very first day, the very first committee,” Burch said.
In developing Florida’s budget, state legislators raided the Lawton Chiles Endowment Fund, which supports health care for children and the elderly, to the tune of $700 million.
The money from the Lawton Chiles Fund won’t be released until June, but Gov. Charlie Crist has said any forthcoming federal stimulus monies will be looked at to replace those funds.
For Burch, federal stimulus dollars siphoned off by the state will bypass counties and municipalities like Cape Coral in dire need of money.
He lobbied U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, D-Massachusetts, to implement language in the House’s federal stimulus bill that would preclude states from using the stimulus to balance their budgets.
“(Frank) told me, ‘I’m not going to let that happen,'” Burch said.
State Rep. Gary Aubuchon, R-Cape Coral, said it was premature to decide whether federal funds should be used to shore up the state budget, as the stimulus package legislation is yet to be passed in the Senate, and the money from the Lawton Chiles Fund won’t be taken out until June.
“We really need to weigh all the options,” Aubuchon said, but stressed that the federal funds are supposed to be used to infuse the economy.
“The emphasis is going to be on getting that money back into the economy,” he added.
State Sen. Garret Richter, R-Naples, also said it was too early to tell whether the federal stimulus dollars would be used to pay back the Lawton Chiles Fund, but that legislators could do more to cut the budget and find alternative revenue sources. He listed the federal funds as an alternative revenue source, but did not like the idea of relying on the stimulus package to salvage the budget.
“It’s a good idea for government to be introspective and take a hard look at agencies and expenditures where bona fide reductions can be made in a wise manner,” Richter said.
The problem is not whether the federal funds end up in the hands of municipalities or the state, but controlling how those funds are used.
“What’s important is not whether it’s directed at the state or local level, what’s important is that it does what it’s supposed to do, which is stimulate the economy and put Florida back to work,” Richter said.
President Barack Obama has asked Congress to ready the federal stimulus legislation for his signature by Feb. 16.