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Infrastructure Funds Benefit More Than The Economy


A number of U.S. mayors have been in Washington this week for meetings at the White House and on Capitol Hill. Their message: We need help. Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett was in the group from the U.S. Conference of Mayors. He was the sole Republican. And Mayor Cornett joins us here in our studios. Mr. Mayor, welcome to the program, and thanks for stopping by. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: There were actually five Republicans in the group.]

M: Thank you very much. I enjoy it.

GREENE: Well, you're in Washington certainly at a time of some sharp partisan differences over jobs, over the economy, over a lot. Tell us what your city needs right now from the federal government.

CORNETT: Well, we have pretty much separated our economy from the calamity that's going on elsewhere. We're very, very fortunate. Our economy is actually very strong. But that doesn't mean there aren't infrastructure needs that Oklahoma City could benefit from, and certainly the larger eastern cities on this side of the country are in need. And I'm really glad that the president has put a lot of infrastructure attention into this bill.

GREENE: We're talking about infrastructure. It sounds like that might mean more money for projects. And this at a time, of course, when a lot of your fellow Republicans are talking about less spending.

CORNETT: Well, we need to invest in our infrastructure regardless of the economic times. Plus, it would put people back to work. I think construction work also serves an additional asset in that if your citizens are seeing construction, it sort of gives them a feeling that people are investing in the long term, that things are going to be better, it might help with consumer confidence. In Oklahoma City, we have a tremendous amount of construction going on right now - probably as much as we've had in 100 years - and our consumer confidence is very high. Our sales tax receipts are going through the roof. And I'm just thinking part of that consumer confidence is based on the fact that they see so much construction taking place in the city.

GREENE: The way you're speaking about infrastructure, you know, spending money on projects, putting people to work, you sound very much like what President Obama has said.

CORNETT: Well, if we agree on something, I'm glad. Because I believe in infrastructure, I believe in investing in your hard assets. Where I think government starts to fail is when it starts getting itself weighed down with the social programs. And I think the American public just feels like a lot of that money is tossed aside and wasted. But they like the idea that they can see a bridge or a road or a new railway station.

GREENE: I'd like to play you, Mayor Cornett, if I can, the voice of one of the leaders of your party, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, and this was his reaction to the president's plan.


S: These are not new ideas. The pay-fors have all been around the track before. And there is bipartisan opposition to every one of them.

GREENE: Bipartisan opposition to every one of them. Is that helpful as sort of a starting point for negotiation?

CORNETT: Senator McConnell told me that he is leading a bipartisan effort willing to compromise, which I think is a little bit contradictory to what the established party line is, you know, this absolutely no-new-taxes line. I felt like there might be some wiggle room in that long-term.

GREENE: President Obama has said a combination of perhaps digging in and making some long-term cuts to entitlement programs but also some tax increases on the wealthy, a combination like that, might suit him. Is that the center? Is that a move that you'd be happy with?

CORNETT: Well, you know, the president's talking about it as, I think, as he terms it, taxing the wealthy. And you know, from what I understand, the top 10 percent of the wage earners in this country are paying 70 percent of the taxes today. I don't think the wealthy are getting out of paying taxes.

GREENE: Let's say for the moment that the president does move to that space to your satisfaction - you feel like he's not putting undue burden on the wealthy. Where is your party prepared to move, do you think? Is there some sort of tax that Republicans in Washington would be willing to swallow to form a compromise and start getting that money to cities like yours?

CORNETT: Yeah, I don't have any reason to believe they would. At least I hope that they're open-minded about it, because the country needs to progress.

GREENE: You're going to face some heat when you go home after a visit like this to the White House?

CORNETT: Always do. And, you know, and some of it gets misconstrued. You know, some people will hear what I said at the steps of the White House and say that I endorsed the president's plan, which I didn't do. I think there are some elements of it that are good. And I probably disagree greatly on how we're going to pay for it. I don't necessarily think we ought to be raising taxes to do it. But if the president's going to draw some attention to infrastructure, then I want to be there for him, because that voice doesn't get spoken loudly enough. And although Oklahoma City doesn't have the infrastructure needs of a lot of cities, if I can be a voice for these large eastern cities that have this deferred maintenance, then I'm going to do so because I think the future of our country relies on it.

GREENE: That's Mick Cornett, the mayor of Oklahoma City and president of the Republican Mayors Association. He stopped by our studios here in Washington. Mayor, thanks so much for coming by.

CORNETT: You're welcome. Appreciate being here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: September 21, 2011 at 10:00 PM MDT
The audio and previous Web text for this story incorrectly said that Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett was the sole Republican among a group of mayors visiting Washington. There were actually five Republicans in the group.
Corrected: September 21, 2011 at 10:00 PM MDT
The audio and previous Web text for this story incorrectly said that Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett was the sole Republican among a group of mayors visiting Washington. There were actually five Republicans in the group.