How the City of LA got $3.5B from the federal government in 6 months

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At last month’s Capitol Hill signing ceremony for $1.25 billion in federal funding for the Metro Purple Line, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti quoted Vice President Joe Biden, calling it “a big friggin’ deal.”

It’s not the first one in the mayor's brief tenure.

In just the past six months, the City of Los Angeles has received grants, loans and promises of more than $3.5 billion. And that’s not counting the $500 million the Army Corps of Engineers has said it will seek for the L.A. River restoration. 

How did L.A. do it?

Timing

Most of these grants and loan proposals have been in the works for months and even years. It’s slightly deceptive to focus on this latest largesse from the federal government. However, lobbyists who seek federal dollars for cities say L.A.’s been doing a number of things right.

Relationships

“It helps to have good relationships across the board,” says California’s junior Senator Barbara Boxer. She credits both former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and his successor with using those D.C. relationships to the city’s advantage.

Jim Clarke, a Culver City Councilman who worked on federal grants and lobbying under both L.A. mayors, says each had different strengths. Villaraigosa had a “good, active” relationship with Congress. But the former mayor had little sway with the Obama White House because he backed Hillary Clinton in 2008.

Garcetti supported Obama, serving as co-chair of his California campaign. Clarke says Garcetti has been able to “capitalize” on that “strong relationship” with the man in the White House. Given the logjams in Congress, Clarke says, “most of the action is happening at the executive level.”

Who’s in charge

Every president comes into office with a particular agenda. This administration came in “with mayors and cities front and center,” says Len Simon, whose firm lobbies on behalf of a number of California agencies and cities. He says the president's priority is reflected in both his budget and cabinet picks.

Simon says President Obama chose a very “city-centric” cabinet: Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education, was the schools superintendent in Chicago; the new Transportation Secretary, Anthony Foxx, was the mayor of Charlotte; and the incoming Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Julian Castro, is the mayor of San Antonio.

The previous HUD secretary, Shaun Donovan, who Simon says was “essentially the housing commissioner for all of New York City,” is now heading over to the Office of Management and Budget. Simon says that’s more good news for cities.

Mayors and city officials from around the country get to know each other at National League of Cities and U.S. Conference of Mayors meetings, says Simon. Those relationships carry over when a mayor moves into the cabinet.

Both the agenda and the cabinet will change in less than three years when President Obama leaves office. Simon says the next occupant of the White House could have a very different set of priorities. Mayor Villaraigosa complained that during George W. Bush's administration, he was never invited to the White House. 

Who’s on the Hill

It’s not enough to have a friendly ear in the White House. Congress appropriates the dollars spent by the federal government.

Richard Katz, a former Assemblyman from Los Angeles who sit on the Metro board, credits California’s two Democratic Senators: Boxer heads the powerful Environment and Public Works Committee at a time when L.A. is proposing transportation and infrastructure projects; and Dianne Feinstein sits on the Appropriations Committee, which approves the money. Katz says the pair “not only have the interest” in solving L.A.’s problems, but they’re “willing to expend political capital to get it done.” He says without those two senators, “we’d be dead in the water.”

The House is more problematic: California doesn’t have members in  similar leadership positions on either the Transportation and Infrastructure or Appropriations committees. But Garcetti, as did Villaraigosa, understands the wisdom of forming relationships with  out-of-state lawmakers to make the city's case – and to propose some unusual solutions.

Creative solutions

Senator Boxer credits L.A. County’s $1.5 billion in federal loans for the downtown regional connector, the Crenshaw Line and the Purple Line to an idea hashed out between Mayor Villaraigosa and her chief of staff on the Environment and Public Works Committee.

The mayor wanted to speed up the region’s transportation projects. The money was there – a half-cent sales tax approved by voters – but it would take 30 years to accumulate. The idea: take an obscure and tiny loan program called the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act, or TIFIA, and seek its expansion.

As a board member of Metro, Katz says he came to Washington often with the mayor. He says it “literally” took three years of knocking on doors and meeting people before what became the America Fast Forward proposal was taken seriously.

It’s been an enormous success – not just for Los Angeles, as cities around the country also apply for TIFIA loans. Before Villaraigosa, Simon says, TIFIA had about $100 million to lend. “After Mayor Villaraigosa, it was about a billion.”

The concept  of federal/local loan partnership is so successful, it’s beginning to spread across Capitol Hill, with proposals for a program for water projects and another for environmental loans. Republicans like it because funding is replenished from loan repayments.

Come to the table with cash

As seen with TIFIA, having municipal dollars in hand can increase a city's chance of getting federal grants and loans. Clarke says “the feds want to see that cities have skin in the game.” Simon agrees, calling it an “extraordinarily positive calling card for federal assistance.”

L.A. showed that intensity with TIFIA loans, but Garcetti also put cash on the table to help persuade the Army Corps of Engineers to go along with L.A.’s twice-as-expensive proposal to rejuvenate the river. The city offered to put up half of the money. It’s a new concept for Washington, says Katz. “No one comes to Washington and says, ‘Give us less money.'”

Face time

You gotta show up.

Villaraigosa made dozens of trips to Washington in his two terms as mayor; in his first year, Garcetti’s been here nearly half a dozen times. The subject of mayoral travel is a touchy one. Long time Angelenos  remember Mayor Sam Yorty’s nickname “Travelin’ Sam” for his many trips.

So how often should California mayors make the trip to Washington? Simon tells his clients to come “as often as possible, as long as you have a good reason.” Meetings are important, not just with cabinet secretaries and members of Congress, but also with what Simnon calls the “factory floor of government” – the undersecretaries and federal workers who handle the day-to-day appropriations.

Lobbying from the left coast

Even those who don’t take the red eye to make office calls on Capitol Hill can help lobby for local projects. Katz credits the chair of City National Bank, Russell Goldsmith, with the idea of using one of L.A.'s political strengths – campaign contributions – to the region's advantage. Goldsmith also heads the L.A. Coalition, which brings together business, labor and non-profits to help grow the area’s economy.

His idea: since politicos from around the country regularly use Los Angeles as an ATM, why not get something in return?

Democrats from throughout the country hold fundraisers in the homes of wealthy Angelenos.  “And yet,” says Katz, “very rarely have the hosts or hostesses of those events thought to talk to the incoming senators or members of Congress about what was important in L.A.” Now, before writing those big checks, donors are starting to have conversations about transit projects and ways the federal government can help boost the local economy.

Work together

The L.A. Coalition isn’t the only group getting various groups and agencies to communicate.

LA n Sync, funded by the Annenberg Foundation, also brings together government agencies, business groups, non-profits and academia to make L.A. County more competitive in its funding proposals. The problem, says Clarke, is that too many local communities are competing against each other.

In one case, the federal government received 60 applicants from L.A. County for one of its neighborhood planning grants. Clarke says it sends a message that we don’t have  our act together. LA n Sync brought everyone together to talk about their proposals and weeded the applicants to a dozen. Two were funded and the other 10 got “good ratings” from the federal agency, which will help in future proposals.

LA n Sync also worked on the proposals that led to the Promise Zone funding and the advanced manufacturing grant.

Does the cash cow stop giving once President Obama leaves office?

Yes and no.

Simon says L.A. will always be able to make a credible case for its needs, no matter who’s in the Oval Office or which party is in power in Congress. It is, after all, the second largest city in the nation.

But expect some disappointment. Simon says when you get large grants for one particular program, “sometimes maybe there’s the pause that refreshes.” But if you’re patient and have a good project, he says, more money will be available over time.


A closer look at LA's lobbying haul
Grants & Loans Description Amount Date Announced
Promise Zones Hollywood, Little Armenia, Koreatown, Westlake and Pico-Union to get perhaps half a billion over a decade Around $500 million January 2014
Federal Transportation Grant Will help build the Regional Connector light rail transit line in the heart of downtown Los Angeles. $670 million February 2014
Federal Transportation Grant Will help build the 3.9-mile Westside Purple Line extension from downtown Los Angeles to the city of Beverly Hills. $1.25 billion May 2014
Manufacturing Community Partnership grant from Commerce Department Will help attract investment capital, get community colleges and universities work together to provide the right kind of training, help communities attract manufacturing. $1.3 billion (shared with 11 other regions around the country) May 2014
LA River Plan Army Corps endorses, but Congress must appropriate money; administration could provide some funding from Department of Interior and Environmental Protection Agency $500 million May 2014
TIFIA - Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act loans Loans for Crenshaw, Regional Connector, and Purple Line, to be repaid from L.A. County's half cent sales tax $1.5 billion 2014
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