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Op-ed: The Trump federal budget and what it means for the U.S.

In this March 21, 2017 photo, President Donald Trump listens to a speaker in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, March 21, 2017.
In this March 21, 2017 photo, President Donald Trump listens to a speaker in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, March 21, 2017.
Evan Vucci, Associated Press

The most revolutionary change to the domestic federal government of the last 110 years is reflected in the Trump administration’s proposed budget. If it succeeds, it will usher in a new era in the United States — for individuals and for state and local governments.

Since the 2016 presidential election, as I’ve contemplated how the results will impact our country and our democracy, one thing is clear: we are seeing a major shift in the role and priorities of the federal government. In effect, President Trump’s administration is proposing a complete budget overhaul.

The historical context of this federal government puts the proposed Trump budget in perspective. Since 1900, Republicans have held both Congress and the presidency four times: the administrations of Roosevelt/Taft, Hoover/Coolidge/Harding, Eisenhower, and Bush II. At the beginning of the 20th century, Presidents Roosevelt and Taft introduced the Progressive Era with an increase in the federal government’s presence, controlling monopolies and effectively establishing a professional federal government. Other Republican presidential administrations with congressional control barely touched the Progressive and New Deal concepts. (For example, although President Reagan advocated for a smaller federal presence, there was little shift in federal control or funding during his administration, and Congress was mostly controlled by Democrats.)

Also since 1900, the federal government has grown, assuming a larger role in a wide range of areas: limiting business monopolies, supporting research and development, providing safety nets for the poor and elderly, and environmental protection. That role has been embraced by a majority of Americans for decades, while its opponents — large businesses, libertarians and fiscal conservatives — have been in the minority.

Today, that scenario may be reversed with this all-Republican Congress and Trump. He proposes to eliminate 62 agencies or programs. His total cut to domestic discretionary spending would be $54 billion, about 5 percent of the total. This cut would offset a $54 billion increase in military spending.

Local and state governments and individuals will feel immediate impacts of these cuts. Consider the issue of homelessness and affordable housing. The federal government’s participation in this issue is largely through the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The proposed Trump budget would eliminate key HUD programs that support housing for the poor: community development block grants, HOME investment partnerships, Choice Neighborhoods and Self-Help Home Ownership Opportunity.

With other reductions, the HUD budget would decrease by 13.2 percent. Also slated for elimination is the U.S. Interagency Council for Homelessness. This small agency has leveraged federal resources to coordinate improvements around homelessness, including resources that effectively eliminated veterans homelessness in Utah.

If Trump’s proposed budget passes, and the federal government is no longer a partner in implementing these programs, one of two likely results would occur: state and local governments, with private sector assistance, will need to pick up the slack, or more people will lose their housing.

This same scenario would play out across other federal agencies if the proposed budget is approved. The Environmental Protection Agency would take the largest hit, with a budget decrease of 31 percent. Federal grants that support state and local air and water quality improvements and programs that combat climate change would be deeply reduced or eliminated. Indeed, the proposed Trump budget would reverse a long history of Republican federal leadership in the environmental field, from Teddy Roosevelt at the beginning of the 20th century through Presidents Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush.

And much larger programs slated for reduction, like Medicare for the elderly and Medicaid for the poor, would impact millions of Americans.

Based on my experience in government at all levels, I worry that the proposed budget cuts will have the largest impacts at the local level. State government may be able to fill part of the gap, but they will then pass the buck to local governments. Yet the ability for cities and counties to address needs is limited, because states decide how local governments raise revenues. Returning to the homeless example: if the federal government reduces its housing support for the poor, and state government fails to pick up the missing funding, local governments may not have the authority to address a community’s full range of needs. We will see more people forced out of housing and onto the streets, overwhelming our ability to address homelessness.

The Trump administration’s axing of the national budget will ramify in significant ways. I have long believed there is a need to streamline the federal government so it works more efficiently and effectively for citizens. But changes of this magnitude should happen through thoughtful action with broad public input. A number of congressional members, including some non-Utah Republicans, are expressing similar reservations about these massive changes. Time, and Congress, will soon reveal what the next era holds in store.

Ralph Becker is a former mayor of Salt Lake City.