Sustainable Budget, Not “Sustainable Communities”

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Commenting on the federal budget the other day, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said “the cupboard is bare. There’s no more cuts to make.”

That view might be reasonable if the federal government was supposed to be the current octopus it is, with tentacles reaching into every aspect of society, micromanaging local affairs, and simultaneously trying to be policeman around the globe.

But most Americans don’t want that. They are tired of costly foreign wars, growing federal intrusions on their privacy, and federal meddling in their schools and other local activities.

So Rep. Pelosi should put aside her stubborn and uninformed view, and instead “go through our federal budget — page by page, line by line — eliminating those programs we don’t need,”as President-elect Obama promised he would do in 2008.

That’s what we’re doing at Cato. The other day, for example, my assistant Nick Zaiac noticed that a program called “Partnership for Sustainable Communities” handed out nearly 200 new grants, and few if any of the items funded are properly federal responsibilities.

The program’s website includes lots of warm and fuzzy phrases like “walkable, livable communities” and “environmentally sustainable regions.”  I’m all for walking, living, and sustaining, but the program’s activities are properly local stuff, not federal. Here are some of the new grants, with my editorial comments:

  • Concord, New Hampshire: $4.7 million to “reconstruct a 12-block section of Main Street in downtown.” It’s the town’s main street for goodness sakes, so shouldn’t the people who live there prioritize it in their own budget?
  • Lewes, Delaware: Federal help is going toward “walking audit technical assistance,” which means “an assessment of how safe and pleasant its streets are for pedestrians.” Geez, just pay my hotel over a sunny weekend, and I’ll do that assessment for free.
  • Boston, Massachusetts: $300,000 for a Choice Neighborhoods Planning Grant for the Whittier Street Apartments. The grant is “to provide a plan that will transform the neighborhood and address longstanding issues of poverty and lack of opportunity.” But will a government central plan work to change the lives of all the different individuals who live there?
  • Bayonne, New Jersey: $11 million to expand the capacity of the seaport. Seaports are a vital piece of infrastructure, but surely they would be better off privatized, unsubsidized, and untethered from Washington. Many British ports were privatized in the 1980s, and appear to be doing very well in today’s competitive environment.
  • Fort Lauderdale, Florida: $18 million to “build a new streetcar line in downtown.”Streetcars are a dubious investment, and generally less efficient than buses. If Fort Lauderdale wants to blow its own money, it can do so, but why should the rest of us have to pay?

We need a sustainable federal budget, so we should terminate “Sustainable Communities.” Indeed, all of the $560 billion a year in federal grants for such state/local projects is unsustainable. It should all be terminated. Here are eight reasons why.