Antonio Villaraigosa Grabs the Third Rail; Embrace of Social Security Cuts May Complicate Future Campaigns

Who knows what Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa plans to do after he leaves office on July 1. Corporate board member? Professional speech-maker? Aspen festival goer?

But if he intends ever to run for office again, his comments this week on the federal budget may come back to haunt him.

"We can strengthen the economy and lay the foundation for long-term middle-class job growth by reigning in (sic) budget-busting programs like Social Security and Medicare now," Villaraigosa said in a statement.

Villaraigosa was reacting to President Obama's proposed budget, which would trim entitlement spending over the next 10 years. The proposal is controversial within the Democratic Party, with some supporting it while others accused the president of "dismantling" Social Security.

Though it's not in his jurisdiction, Villaraigosa has been eagerly grabbing onto the third rail of American politics for some time. Last year, he went so far as to join Fix the Debt, a committee largely made up of Fortune 500 CEOs who are pushing for Social Security and Medicare cuts.

"We have an obligation to reign in (again, sic) our national debt," Villaraigosa said yesterday. "If we are to responsibly reduce the deficit, entitlement reform must be at the forefront of the solution. The cost of entitlements will only drive the national debt upward if we do not stop spending from spinning out of control."

When Obama offers to trim Social Security, his staff at least says that he would do so only if Republicans agree to tax increases. Villaraigosa left that part out, so pure is his eagerness to please the fiscal hawks.

From a political standpoint, Obama can make these proposals because he's never running for office again. Villaraigosa, however, may yet harbor ambition to become governor or a U.S. senator. If he does, a Democratic opponent could easily use these remarks to hammer him for selling out the elderly.

While he was busy opining on national affairs, Villaraigosa was silent on one aspect of Obama's budget that would have a major effect on cities. Obama's budget cuts the deficit in part by capping the tax exemption on municipal bond interest for high-income taxpayers. That would make it more expensive for cities to borrow money for infrastructure projects.

Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, the president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, blasted that proposal yesterday, calling tax-exempt municipal bonds "essential to providing services to middle-class Americans."

Villaraigosa has yet to respond to a request for comment on the issue.

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