Last May 15, the House passed a sweeping $3 trillion relief package that would provide another round of stimulus checks for Americans, extend unemployment benefits, broaden the social safety net, and, of great importance, provide relief funding to states.
States, of course, and local governments for that matter, are taking a huge hit. Not only have they suddenly been faced with the enormous costs entailed in addressing the pressing damages they are sustaining because of the pandemic, but they are also losing out on significant tax revenues because of the partial economic shutdown. Double whammy.
And yet providing relief for states tends to find its way to the back burner in many discussions.
We can speculate on the reasons. My own sense is that the workings and provisions of government systems are often less visible, even invisible, to people. Roads, parks, postal service, libraries, public schools staffed with teachers, affordable state universities, clean water supplies, police and fire protection, garbage pick-up, snow removal—these all just magically exist without us thinking too much about them, such fixtures are they in our lives.
A good number folks don’t even fully realize the vital elements of our lives that we have collectively pooled our tax money together to pay for through our government by, of, and for the people—through us; we’re the government. Think of the Tea Party protesters wanting the government out of their lives, carrying signs shouting, “Government, Get Your Hands of My Medicare!”
Funding government isn’t necessarily prioritized in the American mentality. We’re taught to hate taxes, by and large. My guess is people won’t think about until it’s gone. To quote Joni Mitchell, “Don’t it always seem to go/You don’t know what you got/til it’s gone . . .”
But for our political leaders, particularly beltway Republicans, who play on the fact that the role state and local governments play in people’s lives is largely invisible, the reasons are more disturbing and contradictory.
Take, for example, the fact that Congress passed the Paycheck Protection Program, providing grants to private businesses, to help companies keep their workers employed and on the payroll.
Why wouldn’t the federal government provide similar assistance to states losing out on key revenues because of the pandemic so teachers can keep educating children, police can keep the peace, workers can maintain infrastructure, hospitals can receive aid, firefighters can address emergencies, and so forth?
These services may be far more essential than the t-shirt shop down the block. So why is funding states and helping to keep state workers employed and thus vital services available to people, such an issue?
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s attitude toward helping states reveals a reason and a hypocrisy.
While, according to The New York Times, McConnell recommended struggling states pursue bankruptcy, which is currently not a legal course of action for states, he also responded to general proposals to fund states, saying, “We’ll certainly insist that anything we’d borrow to send down to the states is not spent on solving problems that they created for themselves over the years with their pension programs.”
At least two points need to be addressed regarding this maddening statement.
First, remember back in the Great Recession when banks behaved badly, irresponsibly issuing toxic loans and mortgage-backed securities and derivatives, leading to the near total collapse of the U.S. economy? They were not punished for their behavior, for “problems they created for themselves.” They were bailed out supposedly to save the economy, because they were “too big to fail,” even though many Americans still suffered foreclosure, eviction, and job loss.
If states are having trouble funding pensions, well, at least that’s a problem caused by trying to help people live a dignified retirement. Whereas banks created their problems in the Great Recession because they were greedy and trying to rip people off.
Moreover, aren’t states too big to fail, also? States laying off workers and being unable to provide basic services and maintain infrastructure, will be a huge hit to the economy.
There’s more than a little bit of hypocrisy, of contradictory thinking and policy-making here.
Additionally, rather than talk about the problems states created for themselves, we need to talk about the problems GOP state gubernatorial leadership created for states in slashing state budgets and cutting taxes to the bone, especially for corporations, leaving many states in the fragile financial conditions in which they find themselves today, with little to no fiscal padding to withstand a crisis.
In the middle of this decade, Governors such as Illinois’s Bruce Rauner, Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal, and Kansas’s Sam Brownback did their best to decimate their states by assaulting budgets and cutting taxes.
Kansas, for example, is struggling right now to address the pandemic conditions precisely because Brownback gutted key government agencies, leaving current Governor Laura Kelly scrambling to save the state’s health and also the meat-processing plants vital to feeding the nation. According to The New York Times,
Kansas is still dealing with the hangover of seven years of draconian budget cuts under former Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican. Ms. Kelly said the state health department “had been pretty much decimated” by the time she became governor in 2018, with the laboratory that now processes many Covid-19 tests resembling “something out of the past.”
And yet, to create safe workplaces, the state needs to be able to test workers and contact trace. In fact, Kansas plants process about one quarter of the nation’s meat supply.
So, we all need Kansas to have the resources to function effectively.
The GOP’s resistance to funding states has many layers. As I’ve explored elsewhere, this resistance has much to do with the GOP’s desire to send particularly blue states, into bankruptcy so state budgets become subject to federal oversight.
It’s also linked the GOP’s animosity toward public sector unionized workers, as I’ve written about elsewhere (this is what McConnell’s whining about pensions is about).
In any case, this GOP hypocrisy—and perfidy– should it prevail in preventing relief from going to states, will succeed only in harming Americans and their families.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.