WASHINGTON – Mesa Mayor Scott Smith had a message Thursday for White House and congressional lawmakers he met with to talk about the looming “fiscal cliff” – make the hard choices, as mayors did with their budgets.
“There was no way out of it except to change the way we did business,” said Smith, who faced a $65 million city budget deficit when he took over at the outset of the recession.
“But we did it. It wasn’t always fun, it wasn’t always pretty, but it was effective,” he said.
Smith was one of about a dozen mayors from across the country who came to Washington to talk about how the Jan. 1 combination of federal spending cuts and tax increases could affect their communities.
The mayors met with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and several members of the Senate before sitting down with Vice President Joe Biden at the White House.
Smith conceded that there are differences between federal and municipal governments, but he told Biden and lawmakers that if they replicated what he and other mayors did to correct their budgets after the recession, they could fix the federal budget.
“We know it is a bigger task and there are things that are essential” Smith said of the federal role. “But at the federal level they have to look at everything and there can be no safety nets.”
Smith, who as vice president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors has made several trips to Washington, said there is a sense of frustration among mayors over the pace at which Congress and the White House are acting – or failing to act.
Rep. Ron Barber, D-Tucson, said that while he was on the campaign trail this year he heard voters complain about the lack of urgency that Smith talked about.
“People are sick and tired of the gridlock and they want us to get to work,” said Barber, who was speaking at an unrelated event on Capitol Hill about the fiscal cliff.
He said that if Washington cannot avoid the fiscal cliff, it would mean significant cuts for defense contractors in Arizona and to Homeland Security, which would have a direct impact in the state.
“We would lose about 3,400 Border Patrol agents – not just in my district but across the border,” Barber said. “That would have a dramatic negative impact on what we’re trying to do.”
But Barber said Washington’s inaction is already having an effect, whether the country ultimately goes over the cliff or not.
“The uncertainty that indecision is having on the markets, on business people, on military personnel – is really debilitating,” Barber said. “We need to solve the problem so we can get people to at least have some confidence.”
Smith said the congressional practice of not taking action until a crisis hits is a luxury mayors do not have.
“We have to pick up the trash Thursday and if we are facing a financial crisis we still have to pick up the trash Thursday,” Smith said. “We just wish they (federal officials) would have some of that urgency, because what they’re dealing with is much more damaging than missing trash pickup.”
Smith, a Rebublican, said that after meeting with Biden and other Democrats he felt they do agree on some of the decisions that have to be made – but not all.
“Personally I think that we can agree on infrastructure, R&D (research and development) and education,” he said. “Obviously there are places we don’t agree on, like tax increases and how that’s going to play out.”
Smith also said he is confident after meeting with Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and others, that Republicans can work with the Obama administration to find a “viable solution to immigration issues.”
“What I offered him is that in Arizona we have a different perspective because the problem is different than in the rest of the country,” Smith said of meeting with Rubio. “I offered him my help if he needs it on how to deal with some very serious issues.”
• Cronkite News reporter Matthew Standerfer contributed to this article.