The Gazette covers City Hall, now a flood-damaged icon on May's Island in the Cedar River

Byrd, Pelosi, Rangel: Local flood-relief effort faces need to convince big players in Congressional appropriations

In City Hall, Floods, Justin Shields, Kris Gulick, Monica Vernon on August 26, 2008 at 3:21 am

Iowa’s U.S. Senators, Chuck Grassley and Tom Harkin, have plenty of Senate seniority and, with that, big shoulders to help carry the requests of a flood-damaged Cedar Rapids and a flood-damaged Iowa.

But members of the Cedar Rapids City Council, with the guidance of a K Street lobbyist in Washington, D.C., talked on Monday about the need to lean on more than just Harkin and Grassley and the city’s first-term Congressman, Dave Loebsack, from Mount Vernon.

What’s needed, too, is for Cedar Rapids to work some key Congressional giants — Sen. Robert Byrd, D-West Virginia, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee; Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee; and Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., speaker of the House — if the city is going to land some quick, substantial, supplemental funding to help with its disaster relief.

“We’re playing in the big leagues now,” council member Justin Shields said. “We’re not playing in hopes and maybes.”

With the help of advice from lobbyist Mary Langowski, managing director of Sonnenschein, Nath & Rosenthal LLP, the City Council plotted strategy for what it might be able to do next month to secure funds for the city’s post-flood recovery.

Langowski called the last three weeks of September “do or die,” the time when Congress goes back into session before it adjourns to compete in the November elections.

The hope is that Sen. Harkin and Sen. Byrd will be able to put forth a supplemental spending bill with a formidable package of funds for Iowa’s flood relief. Also in that bill, as now envisioned, will be $182 million for a long-sought new federal courthouse in Cedar Rapids. The existing courthouse along the Cedar River was flooded and needs, according to the city’s numbers, as much as $15 million in flood-related renovations.

Langowski was promising nothing about what might come in September. To provide some comfort, she noted that substantial amounts of Congressional funding continue to go to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast three years after Hurricane Katrina hit there. And Langowski imagined that the city of Cedar Rapids, similarly, will be seeking and receiving federal earmarks for flood relief in three years and more into the future.

The council spent some time talking about what kind of local delegation should venture to Washington, D.C., in September to lobby face-to-face. It sounds like a couple council members, a couple of Linn County supervisors and a couple business leaders will be in the mix. Langowski said she would take them from Harkin and Grassley and Loebsack to the offices of key members of the Senate and House appropriations committees.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi is slated to be in Iowa on Sept. 8, and Langowski advised the city of Cedar Rapids to prepare for any trip to Cedar Rapids with sites of flood damage to see and flood stories to hear.

Langowski wondered if Barak Obama was headed back to Iowa or if anyone had good ties to Sen. Joe Biden, Obama’s running mate.

Council members Monica Vernon and Kris Gulick liked the idea of seeing just what kind of contacts that corporations in Cedar Rapids might have in other Congressional districts across the nation, and if any of those districts had members on the House Ways & Means Committee.

Much of the talk was about Democrats, in part, surely, because the Democrats control both houses of Congress.

Langowski’s biography — 1999 graduate of Drake University; a masters in public administration from Drake, 2005; law degree from the University of Iowa, 2007 — includes a stint as senior policy advisor for Sen. Harkin.

Langowksi noted Monday that Sen. Grassley and Rep. Loebsack also are working on tax-relief legislation, which would, in part, provide more low-income housing tax credits to Iowa to help cities like Cedar Rapids build more affordable housing to replace what was lost in the June flooding. Support for the legislation wasn’t a sure thing, Langowski said.

At the same time as it works Congress, the city of Cedar Rapids is readying to work Gov. Chet Culver and the Iowa Legislature to try to find some revenue support from state government. Larry Murphy, a lobbyist, former state lawmaker and mayor of Oelwein, is helping.

Murphy said chances for a special legislative session have moved from doubtful to an open question for now.

Some of what the city is seeking is ambitious and seems reflective of the size of the disaster here and the amount of money it is going to take to get beyond it.

One idea, for instance, would be for the state of Iowa to allow all the state income tax paid by Cedar Rapids residents to come back to a special fund in Cedar Rapids for use in disaster relief for five years.

The city also is seeking permission to raise local revenue via sources in addition to local property taxes. Imagine a local income tax, or at least a local income for non-resident workers. Other ideas include a local sales tax without referendum, a local entertainment tax, a wheel tax and a tobacco tax. This push for alternative revenue was considered by the Iowa Legislature this spring, before the flood, without success.

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