Fresno County looks for money in DC as budget cuts hit

03/04/2013 2:43 PM

03/29/2013 3:39 PM

Fresno County officials are lobbying Congress at an awkward time this week.

While the county has a wish list, the Congress has a budget problem. Several budget problems, actually, all of which complicate the county’s efforts to fund priorities ranging from road improvements to high-speed rail training.

“It certainly makes it more challenging,” Fresno County Board of Supervisors Chairman Henry R. Perea acknowledged Monday.

Perea is one of 22 politically attuned Fresno County residents swarming Capitol Hill this week as part of an annual lobbying trip dubbed “One Voice.” This is the county’s eighth annual lobbying trip coordinated under the “One Voice” umbrella by the Fresno Council of Governments, but the first to occur under such peculiar circumstances.

On Saturday, just as the Fresno delegation arrived, the federal government entered into the murky budget world known inside-the-Beltway as the “sequester.” The automatic round of across-the-board budget cuts, imposed because Congress and the White House failed to strike a deal, will eventually reduce federal spending by $85 billion through Oct. 1. Further clouding the picture, a temporary spending measure that keeps the federal government operating expires March 27.

Even if the temporary spending measure, called a “continuing resolution,” is extended by lawmakers leery of paying the political price for a government shutdown, the dollar amounts will be tight.

“As dire as it is,” Perea said, “there is still funding available.”

Akin to similarly named ventures undertaken by other San Joaquin Valley counties, the “One Trip” delegation emphasizes a locally unified effort on behalf of a carefully pruned agenda.

This year, the delegation is focusing on nine current or proposed federal programs. They aren’t earmarks, the individual projects that lawmakers once favored and that skeptics called pork. Led by House Republicans, Congress has sworn off earmarks for the time being.

Instead, for the most part, Fresno officials are backing larger programs for which potential local beneficiaries have been identified. By supporting continued State Transportation Improvement Program funding in the next federal transportation bill, for instance, officials hope dollars will trickle down to pay for work on a Veterans Boulevard and State Route 99 interchange.

In a similar vein, Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims is pushing for continued State Criminal Alien Assistance Program funding to help reimburse the county for the cost of jailing illegal immigrants locked up on other crimes. National program cuts have slashed the county’s share, from $1.3 million in 2008-2009, to $468,000 last year.

“We hold a lot of inmates who are criminal aliens,” Mims said.

As in past years, the Fresno County officials are proposing establishment of a new “air and health quality empowerment zone” to help fund San Joaquin Valley air pollution cleanup efforts. They are also asking for help in creating a “high-speed rail training facility” that would train workers, and for continued community development block grant funding.

“We understand there are no earmarks, but we want to be in position when they make allocations,” Fresno County Supervisor Phil Larson said.

The Fresno County delegation includes a mix of public and private officials. The small city of Orange Cove, with a population of about 9,000, sent three representatives, more than any other town in the county. Mayor Gabriel Jimenez and Mayor Pro Tem Victor Lopez, who have feuded sharply in the past, are part of the “One Voice” contingent, along with Mario Villarreal, police commissioner with the Orange Cove Police Protection District.

Accompanied by lobbyist Len Simon, whose firm has been separately retained both by the city of Fresno and the Fresno Council of Governments, the county officials set up shop Monday on the fifth floor of a House office building to receive briefings. Other meetings are occurring elsewhere through Wednesday.

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