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National Association of Counties
Washington, D.C.

www.NACo.org

 March 5, 2013 - Washington, D.C.

Check out today's conference photos

Early birds were rewarded today with a special visit from first-term Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-N.M.), who was the featured speaker at the Women of NACo Leadership Network breakfast. Lujan Grisham, a former Bernallilo County, N.M. commissioner, urged WON members to be persistent in keeping their Congressional delegation aware of the impact their action or inaction has on their constituents.

NACo members heard from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, U.S. Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.), U.S. Rep Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), assistant House Democratic leader, and Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho) at the morning general session. Also at the morning's general session NACo presented its 2013 Award for Corporate Excellence to AT&T for its sustained leadership and financial support. 

Today marks a departure from previous legislative conference agendas. Instead of scheduling afternoon educational sessions, NACo set aside time for members to visit their congressional delegations and scheduled its own briefing on tax--exempt financing on Capitol Hill for congressional staff.

Following are highlights from some of today's speakers.

Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.) spoke to the need for expanded broadband Internet access when he addressed the general session.

“The digital divide in rural areas is truly a lack of infrastructure,” he said. “It’s difficult to incentivize businesses to spend millions of dollars to bring infrastructure to a few people. “We need to acknowledge there’s a divide between rich districts and those experiencing poverty,”

He said part of the solution for expanding access in rural areas would be to equip more community centers with state-of-the-art technology.

Terry cited his local cable provider’s success in expanding broadband access for children. “Those children who start using computers, their parents learn along with them,” he said.

Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho) decried the federal spending problem that he saw as a symptom of Congress’s distance from the taxpayers.

“There’s a cavalier attitude about money, I don’t get it,” he said. “This isn’t Las Vegas, this isn’t make-believe money, it’s real money.”

He said there was no proposal being debated in Congress that he felt could control spending. “The solutions are too common sense,” he said. “Congress is not designed to handle these things, he said. “It will rise to the occasion in a crisis, though.”

He suggested a modest 1 percent decrease in spending over several years to return the federal budget to balance. “We can ease our way out of this, but it’s not likely going to happen,” he said, because the federal budget process is accustomed to growing.

He compared the United States’ debt crisis to Greece’s with two main caveats — the United States is larger and can’t be bailed out by the rest of Europe, and the U.S. credit limit is higher. 

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack highlighted the effects of sequestration on rural America and the need for a new farm bill.

He called the sequester “bad policy” but said the U.S. Department of Agriculture will try to minimize disruption in its implementation of funding and program cuts. “It is a difficult, horrible process but it is the law,” Vilsack said.

One of his major concerns is food inspection. He said “front-line” and support staff account for 87 percent of USDA’s food safety inspection budget. “There is no way, based on how the sequester is structured, that I can avoid furloughing food safety inspectors.”

Among other effects, he said many rural counties that have already received Secure Rural Schools Act payments will have to return the money, and the sequestration will significantly reduce nutrition assistance through the WIC program. As a result of the latter, some 600,000 mothers who depend on the infant nutrition program would be placed on a waiting list.

Money to promote U.S. exports will also take a hit to the tune of $15 million to $20 million, he said, noting that every dollar spent on promotion generates $35 in trade.

On the farm bill, Vilsack urged NACo members to use their Capitol Hill visits to discuss the “importance of getting this bill done.”

“We need some certainty in policy,” he said, “which is why we’re going to continue to work and focus on getting a five-year food, farm and jobs bill through the legislative process.”


March 4, 2013 - Washington, D.C.

The conference swung into full gear today with author, Bob Woodward of The Washington Post; Mark Zandi , Moody Analytics s chief economist; Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.)  and Attorney General Eric Holder on tap for the Opening General Session. The day also marked the premier of the new NACo video: Why Counties Matter, a key component in the campaign to educate the nation’s communities on the vital importance of county governments in their lives.

Three breakout sessions featured 15 educational workshops that ran the gamut from an update on the new highway and transit transportation law, MAP-21 to health reform and cybersecurity.

Highlights follow:

Journalist and author Bob Woodward shared his views on Washington through the prism of his 40 years of covering U.S. presidents — ranging from Watergate to last year’s debt-ceiling debates to the current sequestration.

“If we were to spend time asking what we should worry about most in this country… my answer to the question is secret government,” he said. Nixon tried it, and there’s an increasing tendency toward secrecy in the current White House, “with this concentration of power, with the shields up,” he added.

Woodward’s comments come at a time when he has recently accused an Administration official of threatening him to prevent a story critical of President Obama’s handling of the sequester.

On the across-the-board sequestration cuts, Woodward suggested the president could have shown more leadership. “I’m not sure that President Obama fully understands the power that he has,” he said. Not that leading in today’s Washington is a walk in the park, he added, noting that Republican opposition has been “obstructionist.”

“Color me baffled that these people cannot sit down and talk and figure out how to work together,” he said.

Citing an example of presidential power and courage, Woodward recalled President Ford’s pardon of President Nixon, which may have cost Ford the presidency.

In the early '70s, the pardon smacked of a deal, Woodward said. But in hindsight it was “an act of political courage that we so rarely see — setting aside one’s interests for the larger interest.”

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) gave the opening general session a self-effacing assessment of Congress’ performance leading up to the implementation of sequestration. The first-term senator served seven terms in the House of Representatives and started his political career with 12 years as the Greene County, Mo. clerk.

“The last time the United States Senate passed a budget, nobody had an iPad,” he said. “The continuing resolution, that’s something most of you wouldn’t try to get away with where you work .”

He welcomed the budget cuts that have been part of sequestration. “We’re appropriating more money than the law says we’re allowed to spend,” he said.

The key to keeping that under control, he said was recognizing what level of government is best equipped to handle a problem. “The common sense solution comes from the level of government that’s closest to the problem,” he said.

He predicted that the new chairwoman of the Senate Finance Committee would be a major player in reaching a solution for the nation’s budget woes. “I think Barbara Mikulski may be the secret weapon in getting us back on track,” he said. “She’s very determined, she’s been doing this a long time, and she understands it can’t always be exactly the way you want it. Frankly I don’t think the majority leader will be able to stand up to her and say ‘no I’m not going to take your bills to the floor.’”

Attorney General Eric Holder used his time during the general session to thank NACo President Chris Rodgers and other county leaders for pursuing smart justice initiatives in their communities. He detailed how many grants the Department of Justice has awarded to county governments for re-entry programs. The sequester will cost the Department of Justice $1.6 billion over seven months with grants to local governments taking a $100 million hit.

Moody Economist Mark Zandi gave the opening generation session an optimistic national economic forecast. “I’ve felt as good (about the U.S. economy) as I have in a decade,” he said.

He said that by adding up all deficit reduction since the austerity movement began in 2010, the 10-year deficit reduction total is $4 trillion.“One could argue that under reasonable economic assumptions, policymakers have come pretty close to fiscal sustainability,” he said. “Enough to appeal global investors.”

He said as the effects of sequestration becomes more ingrained in the budget, its results would vary regionally, with struggles in the Washington, D.C. region and the Southeast, Missouri and New Mexico. Generally, the Midwest would be poised to thrive, he said.

He didn’t think the political situation would reach over to a government shutdown.“I don’t think it’s in anyone’s political interest to shut the government down,” he said. “I think everyone recognizes that would be bad politics.”

Medicare and Medicaid reforms, however, would be necessary to maintain fiscal stability.

Though sequestration would stymie the growth in gross domestic product change from the 2 percent it has held for the last four years, he predicted it would double in 2014 and return the United States to full employment (5.5 percent – 6 percent unemployment) by 2016.

“To be precise, by June 2, at 2 p.m. Eastern Time,” he joked.

A workshop on increasing exports from local communities, Counties in the Global Economy, featured presentations from the Brookings Institution’s Marek Gootman and Hennepin County, Minn. Commissioner Peter McLaughlin. Brookings, as the major Washington think tank is known, has pioneered the “Metropolitan Export Plan,” and has worked closely with several metropolitan regions, including the Minneapolis-St. Paul region, to develop a guide for local leaders  that offers 10 steps to successfully launch an export initiative.

Gootman said growth markets are increasingly outside of the U.S.  By 2020, the worldwide, middle class market for goods and services will weigh in at $31 trillion. Job growth in the U.S. is fueled by exports. Exporting companies, Gootman said, are more stable than their non-exporting colleagues.  And despite frequent mention of the nation’s trade deficit, the U.S.  has a $168 billion trade surplus in services with financial, software and industrial licensing services leading the list.

McLaughlin’s MSP region, which includes 13 counties across two states, was one of the four regions where Brookings piloted its metro exports program.  Brookings learned a number of lessons as it assessed its pilot programs. Leaders in Hennepin County also learned important lessons, McLaughlin said. Most important: “You need to inject yourself and your counties into the export efforts.”  It’s not unusual to have the big city mayors in metropolitan regions assume the leadership roles in export development planning, McLaughlin said.  “It’s important to get yourself in the game.”

At the Disaster Recovery: What You Need to Know educational session, John Russell, Madison County, Ala.’s emergency management director, warned against relying too much on the Federal Emergency Management Agency for help following a disaster that overwhelms local emergency management service capacity.

“Don’t think FEMA is responsible for fixing your community,” he said. “A lot of people blame them. Locals (emergency workers) will be there from beginning to end.

He stressed prioritizing the reopening of supermarkets and gas stations, which would be a force multiplier in helping residents meet their needs.

Davidson County, N.C. Commissioner Fred McClure said cooperation wih municipalities ahead of time was crucial.

“Make sure cities in the county were on board with who’s in charge,” he said. “The last place you want to be engaging business cards is standing around a smoldering hole.”

Forrest County, Miss. Supervisor Chris Bowen suggested it might be more effective to take down the gas and electrical grids in advance of a weather emergency, like a hurricane or tornado, to avoid complications if they are damaged. “It might be better for the residents to be inconvenienced for a night than to stare down a gas explosion.”

Judson Freed, emergency management director for Ramsey County, Minn., said it was worth passing up Reverse 911 technology — which dials the numbers of county residents in the event of an emergency — in favor of a program the federal government  is debuting that will also be able to reach cell phones.

At the first of two sessions on cybersecurity at the conference, Kelvin Coleman, the branch chief for government engagement in the Department of Homeland Security’s Natural Cyber Security Division, said cyber criminals could be anyone.

“Criminals, nation states, the kid down the street,” he said. “They’re all trying to get into your systems.”

As counties put an increasing number of services online, they will become more of a target.

“We used to say it was the new threat, “ he said. “It is the ‘now threat.’”

Kristin Judge, the executive director,Trusted Purchasing Alliance at the Center for Internet Security, implored county elected officials to maintain or increase their budgets for cybersecurity.

“If you cut IT budgets, you won’t be secure,” she said. “A ‘cyber 9/11’ is imminent.”

She said any database that  contains Social Security numbers must be encrypted, and suggested system passwords of a minimum of nine characters, including numbers and capital letters, be the standard for county employees.

Ralph Johnson, King County, Wash.’s chief information security and privacy officer, said counties should set policies governing information technology that would stand up to changes in elected officials and demonstrate due diligence to constituents whose information is contained in those systems.

“Everyone in your organization is responsible for information security,” he said. “They don’t have to run a firewall, but they need to know their areas of responsibilities.”

He listed five types of policies each county should establish:

  • ·      Information security
  • ·      Information privacy
  • ·      Information classification
  • ·      Access control
  • ·      Acceptable use

Steve Brannon, principal for research and intelligence for the Verizon Risk Team, advised county officials to steer conversations with vendors away from “silver bullet” solutions they try to sell and more toward a personalized approach that protects their systems uniquely from other organizations’.

Knowledgeable Washington insiders Kelly Whitner, professional staff member, Senate Finance Committee and Monica Popp, professional staff member, House Energy and Commerce Committee spoke to a packed room at the Health Reform: Where Do We Go from Here? workshop about  what they can expect as the Affordable Care Act starts being implemented.

Whitner spoke on how the Senate Finance Committee's role has shifted to oversight of implementation of the Affordable Care Act.

"Every state needs to seriously think about expanding Medicaid to help with implementation," said Whitner. To date, 24 states and Washington, D.C. are for expanding Medicaid.

On the House side Popp talking about how House Republicans are looking at the preparedness of the administration on Medicaid and implementation of the exchange and mandates at the individual and employee level. She also touched on deficit reduction being an ongoing conversation with the Affordable Care Act.

"Possible cuts to parts of the health care law that have not been implemented is something Congress may have to explore for deficit reduction," said Popp.

March 3, 2013 - Washington, D.C.

More top federal agency officials visited the conference today, candidates’ campaigns for the NACo second VP slot kicked up a notch, and NACo renewed its Memorandum of Understanding with U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.

Public Lands Steering Committee members were offered a Capitol Hill view and a federal agency perspective on public lands management at their full committee meeting today. Todd Ungerecht, senior counsel to the chairman House Natural Resources Committee, told the committee that  Natural Resources Chair Doc Hastings (R- Wash. ) believes  “federal  forest service  management has failed rural schools and forest health.”  Meanwhile, the need remains to provide a more stable tax base to fund schools. Hastings, Ungerecht said, is committed to finding an alternative to the failed SRS (Secure Rural Schools) funding. The chairman also believes the Endangered Species Act is a failure and intends to “make sure it benefits people as well as species.”

From the other side of Capitol Hill, U.S. Forest Chief Tom Tidwell believes there has been an important shift in attitude among the stakeholders involved with managing the nation’s forests.

“It’s an interesting time for managing forests and grasslands. There’s been lots of conflict over management until about five years ago when there began a shift in attitude with people coming together to solve problems.”  Tidwell attributed the shift to recent legislation that gives his agency more flexibility than it encountered under the older environmental laws such as National Environmental Protection Act, the Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act.

Despite reduced funding, the Forest Service, Tidwell said,  is engaging in accelerated restoration strategies such as undertaking large environmental impact studies involving hundreds of thousands of acres instead of the less efficient study of smaller parcels, pushing its contractors to be more efficient,  and  reaching out to new partners such as utility companies. On the marketing side, he said the Forest Service is doing what it can to expand markets for forest products.  

Acting Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Director Neil Kornze also spoke to the committee about the progress his agency is making in serving the country’s energy needs, including the launch of an online drilling permit process now in a pilot stage that is expected to go nationwide by the end of the year.  In the pilot stage, the online permit process has reduced permit waiting times from 200 days to 60 days.

Justice and Public Safety Committee speaker Denise O’Donnell, director, Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA), U.S. Justice Department, said her agency’s strategic plan aligns almost “perfectly” with the priorities of NACo President Chris Rodgers’ Smart Justice Initiative in encouraging measurable outcomes, data-driven solutions and evidence-based programs.

Last year, BJA made 245 direct local Justice Assistance Grant awards to counties of more than $15 million, she said. “There’s a lot of discussion … about the federal government trying to provide incentives over and above JAG funding to encourage localities and states to invest in the kinds of programs that President Rodgers is talking about.”

She also highlighted upcoming BJA funding opportunities available through 17 current solicitations for which counties can apply. Several have deadlines that are fast approaching.

O’Donnell also focused on the Second Chance Act, which was designed to improve outcomes for people re-entering communities from prisons and jails, including lowering rates of recidivism.

The law is an important source of funds to help counties build an evidence base of successful programs, she said and encouraged counties to advocate for its reauthorization. Another resource, the National Re-entry Resource Center, is “a treasure trove of information” about what works in re-entry, she added.

“Part of our commitment is to continue to aid in smart research that has practical implications in this field of re-entry and community corrections. I think that’s really important,” she said.

Kelvin Coleman, the branch chief for government engagement in the Department of Homeland Security’s Natural Cyber Security Division, made it clear at the Telecommunications and Technology Steering Committee meeting that it wasn’t a matter of “if” county information networks could be compromised, but when it would happen.

“Loss of vital networks would quickly cripple any county,” he said. “None is immune from cyber attack.”

He offered his office’s assistance in doing educational outreach to counties, which would include partnerships with private sector entities.

“Reaching out to you makes you a force multiplier in getting the message out to citizens,” he said. “If all the counties came to me and said ‘we could use your help,’ that would be a good problem for us to have

Chief among populations to educate, he said was senior citizens.

“(They) are going online in numbers that blow the mind because we’re putting more services online,” he said. “They’re using Facebook to communicate with their grandkids,” adding the amount of business done on “Cyber Monday” indicated online commerce was reaching the point of ubiquity and citing calculations that Americans spend 2.6 billion hours a month on the Internet.

Gregory Vadas, the chief of the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs at the  Federal Communications Commission, updated the committee on the FCC’s cramming guidance.

Cramming, a type of fraud in which third-parties place unauthorized charges on consumers telephone bills, typically in small amounts on line items where consumers will overlook them and carriers

The FCC’s Truth in Billing regulations already cover landlines, but the commission was still reviewing input from a comment period that closed in mid-2012 regarding cramming in wireless and voice-over-internet provider bills.

Coordinating ways for employers and granters to connect with job seekers and projects in need of funding are chief among priorities for Gerri Fiala, deputy assistant secretary of employment and training administration at the Department of Labor. Fiala who spoke at the ​Labor and Employment Steering Committee meeting said the efforts boil down to consolidating information where the right people can see it.

When organizations apply for grants though the Department of Labor, their project abstracts are now posted online.

“It allows everyone to see everyone’s ideas,” she said. “If they don’t get the grant, it creates a database that allows other funders to see what projects are out there. Maybe help them find a match.”

As for as making the job market more efficient, her agency’s efforts focus on helping employers search through available candidate profiles to find some with skills they desire, particularly among veterans.

“Everyone wants to help veterans and everyone jumped into it with their own projects,” she said. “So there are all of these sites  we’re trying to make sense of,” so the department can standardize job banks for veterans.

She wouldn’t speculate as to sequestration’s effects on the Labor Department.

“We don’t even have a 2013 budget yet, we’ve been working under a continuing resolution,” she said. “I won’t make numbers up.”

She said a letter would likely be sent to governors next week, describing potential situations set off by varying ways the department could absorb the sequester.

She also touched on a number of grants available through the department’s website at www.doleta.gov/grants/.

At the Agriculture and Rural Affairs Steering Committee meeting, Doug O’Brien, the USDA deputy undersecretary for rural development updated steering committee members on USDA budget and key priorities for rural America.
 
Among the opportunities O'Brien mentioned was manufacturing. ​Jobs coming back from overseas, low energy prices and productivity will help bring a lot of manufacturing jobs back to rural America.
 

The White House is also looking into becoming more engaged in relationships with local governments focusing on such issues as concentrated poverty. Education and income are some of the key factors that cause this. Working together on the issue will help the concentration decline.

"NACo highlights our need to partner together to help solve these issues," said O'Brien. "The Administration continues their support for rural America but partnerships are going to be key."

Around the country, 4,800 people work for USDA Rural Development in 450 offices. They lost 17 percent of staff (1,000 people) in the last 15 months with office closures, job cuts, etc.

 

March 2, 2013 - Washington, D.C.

Activity ramps up today for county officials attending  NACo's 2013 Legislative Conference. Policy steering committees and subcommittees deliberated policy resolutions and heard from Administration officials about actions undertaken by federal agencies that impact or will impact local governments.

Members of the Water Quality and Solid Waste Subcommittee got a preview of a new stormwater rule being proposed by EPA in June. It also heard about several court decisions that affect counties efforts to comply with Clean Water Act regulations.  The Western Interstate Region Board of Directors was briefed by USDA Deputy Under Secretary Butch Blazer about the U.S. Forest Service projects that intersect with local governments in land use planning, wildfire-urban interface and forest restoration.

In other action, more than 200 county leaders attended the annual NACo Technology Summit, now renamed  "Innovation Summit," where industry leaders, leading county IT professionals and county leaders learn discusst the latest opportunities and challenges in digital technology.