The two biggest fears of the fiscal cliff are defense cuts and tax hikes. The nation's mayors say the devastating effects of automatic cuts reach further than the Defense Department — right into their own cities. Steve Inskeep talks to the Democratic Mayor of Charleston, S.C., Jospeh Riley and Republican Mayor Scott Smith of Mesa, Ariz., about the impact sequestration could have in their cities.
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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Next we have a tale of two cities.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
One is new, one is old.
MONTAGNE: One's on the East Coast and one is on the West.
INSKEEP: One has a Republican mayor, the other Democratic.
MONTAGNE: Yet those mayors agree on one thing. Both were in Washington yesterday, urging Congress not to go over the fiscal cliff.
INSKEEP: They say tax increases and spending cuts scheduled at the end of the year would lead not to the best of times but to the worst of times. Joseph Riley is the Democratic mayor of Charleston, South Carolina, and Scott Smith is the Republican mayor of Mesa, Arizona. What's Mesa like?
MAYOR SCOTT SMITH: You know, Mesa's a city of the late 20th, 21st century, even though we're 138 years old, which is an old city by Arizona standards, nothing like Charleston. We're really a post-World War II creation. We've grown from a regional farm center into a big city. We're not the 30th largest city in the country.
INSKEEP: How many people in Mesa?
SMITH: Almost 450,000.
INSKEEP: A suburb of Phoenix with 450,000.
SMITH: And what that means is that we still have all the big city problems, all the big city challenges, but we also have a lot of big city opportunities.
INSKEEP: Okay. Mayor Riley, Charleston's been a big city since colonial times.
MAYOR JOSEPH RILEY: Three hundred and thirty years old. We now have a population of about 130,000, metro area of about 600,000. Downtown is beautifully restored. A lot of beautiful old architecture. It's a city of diversity. We have all incomes and backgrounds.
INSKEEP: So very different cities. You are from differing political parties. Mayor Smith is Republican. Mayor Riley is Democratic. But you're here essentially with the same concern. Suppose it gets to be January 1, Congress and the president agree on nothing. Taxes go up. Spending cuts begin to take effect. What does that mean for Charleston?
RILEY: For Charleston, as an average city in America, it would be devastating. But obviously we have a large component of defense department in our community and a huge number of jobs that would be lost. The federal partnerships that we have, our community development block grant program, which helps us build housing in the inner city and restore our neighborhoods, and countless other programs, we have partnerships that would be fractured.
And we've got a deficit that needs to be reduced over time and we have an economy that is slowly emerging from recession. And if we're not careful, history tells us that we will slip back into it again, if not even worse.
SMITH: You know, we're very much like Charleston. We do have heavy defense industry. And I know people are saying, well, gee, that's exactly what we should cut. We understand that the deficit has to be brought under control. I mean there's not a mayor around here that doesn't understand deficits. We've balanced our budgets and we made very, very tough decisions. But we tried to do it in a smart way.
The problem with the way that Washington is approaching things is it's like there's not a whole lot of thought. In many ways the cure is actually worse than the disease.
INSKEEP: Should each of you not have the resources locally to make the kinds of investments that you need to make?
SMITH: You know, as a Republican, of course I don't look for handouts, and no mayor looks for a handout from Washington. What we're finding, though, in this recession is that we've sort of been the dumping ground of responsibility. At the end of the day, we have to take care of our citizens. We don't get to kick it down the road. And in Mesa, for example, with some of these federal programs, they share in that burden.
We have a lot of veterans. Veterans tend to have a higher propensity to be homeless, to have mental health issues. Those are people who need to be cared for and the responsibility falls on us.
INSKEEP: Given that you've acknowledged that the deficit has to be dealt with, are you both assuming that even if you avoid cuts right now, that a year from now, two years from now, five years from now, you're going to have to be playing in a different environment where you just have a lot less assistance from the federal government? You're nodding, Mayor Riley.
RILEY: Sure. There will be less assistance. Cuts will be needed. They should be even. They should be thoughtful. They shouldn't be unnecessarily harmful, and part of it has to be additional revenues. We can't cut our way out of this problem without doing substantial harm to our nation's economy as well as substantial harm to people in our cities.
INSKEEP: Mayor Smith.
SMITH: You know, of course if I come in here and say I'm for higher taxes, the Republicans run me out of the room. But let's deal with reality. I think that whatever deal comes out of Washington will include revenue enhancements. The economic reality is, is that we have to adjust our spending and we have to adjust how we collect revenue, and I think you'll see more revenue come in. I think you'll see cuts and changes that'll be made, and we support that as mayors.
We've had to make those tough decisions. We have learned to deal with a new reality and that is that now and in the future we're not going to get the kind of direct aid. That's not what we're looking for. We're looking for Washington to make - continue to make smart investments, things in bridges and roads and ports and things that really create an economic return. Those things that have built great cities, we get what it takes to make a great economy.
And we'd like the federal government to continue to make the kind of investments we have made as a nation for a long time.
INSKEEP: Scott Smith is the Republican mayor of Mesa, Arizona. Joseph Riley is the Democratic mayor of Charleston, South Carolina. Thanks to you both, gentlemen.
SMITH: Thank you.
RILEY: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.