WASHINGTON — Lawmakers on Friday sympathized with the San Joaquin Valley but showed uncertainty over the best way to help the economically struggling region.
Los Banos Mayor Tommy Jones found a receptive Capitol Hill audience as he pleaded with a House panel for federal aid.
"Our community, our county, tends to be overlooked," Jones told the House Financial Services Committee, "but our need is not any smaller than those who have faced hurricanes or floods."
Jones recounted the city's 21 percent unemployment rate and 50 percent drop in property tax revenues over the past year. One out of five Los Banos homes has been caught up in foreclosure.
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"We're small-town America, facing extreme economic hardship," Jones said.
The committee's chairman, Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., acknowledged that residents of Los Banos and the San Joaquin Valley are facing worse circumstances than many other parts of the country. While noting that "there are a variety of programs" already designed to aid troubled regions, Frank pledged to work toward new solutions as well.
The 90-minute hearing Friday afternoon touched briefly on one proposal by Reps. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, and Jim Costa, D-Fresno, to create "economic disaster" zones. Designated areas would be eligible for additional federal assistance, including money provided through the Community Development Block Grant program.
That program funnels upward of $5 billion annually to communities nationwide. The $787 billion economic stimulus bill approved in February included a $1 billion boost for the block grant program.
Although the new bill's details remain a work in progress, Costa and Cardoza suggest increasing the block grant funding and setting some of the money aside for the economic disaster zones.
Unemployment and foreclosure rates and other criteria would be used to select the zones. The bill may not be introduced for several weeks.
"What has been put forward to help the rest of the country is not enough to us at home," Cardoza said, adding that "our entire nation has been hurting right now, but our region is hurting much worse."
Cardoza and Costa persuaded Frank to hold the hearing Friday as a first public step toward potential legislation. Fewer than one-fifth of the committee's 69 members attended, but there were enough present to suggest some of the legislative hurdles still ahead.
"I sympathize with my colleagues," said Rep. Spencer Bachus of Alabama, the senior Republican on the panel, but "I do have concerns that redirecting (block grant) funds may have unintended consequences."
Texas Rep. Jeb Hensarling, a vocal budget hawk among his fellow Republicans, added that "there are better ways to promote jobs," and Bill Johnson, director of the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs, cautioned that block grant spending might take several years to have any real impact.
Still, by the end of the hearing, Frank was committing himself to do what he could on the San Joaquin Valley's behalf.