The fiction of Mitch McConnell’s ‘blue state bailout’

Every big city and state — red or blue — needs bipartisan federal help immediately. To refuse that aid, as Republicans in Washington would do, is to play politics with Americans’ lives.

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Senate Votes On $500 Billion Aid Package For Coronavirus Pandemic

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., argues that a federal stimulus package for states would be a “blue state bailout” and suggests that states declaring bankruptcy would be a better option.

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It’s about paying paramedics, who are risking their lives for us.

It’s about paying firefighters and police officers, bus drivers and teachers, garbage collectors and prison guards.

Chicago and the state of Illinois, like every big city and state, need billions of dollars in federal assistance right now to weather the crisis of the coronavirus pandemic. To refuse that aid, as Republicans in Washington threaten to do, is to play politics with the American economy and people’s lives.

Some states and cities were in better financial shape than others before the pandemic, but all 50 states and most big cities have been slammed hard since. Expenses have soared while tax revenues have plummeted. Without massive federal aid, states and cities soon will be unable to cover the costs of essential services — those paramedics, teachers and prison guards — and our nation could be thrown into a depression rivaling that of the 1930s.

Every state hammered

Despite all this, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell calls this a “blue state bailout.” And in the same dismissive way, both President Donald Trump and former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley in the last few days have attacked Illinois Democrats for using the COVID-19 crisis to ask for a $10 billion state pension rescue.

Trump and Haley specifically are referring to an ill-thought-out proposal made two weeks ago by Illinois Senate President Don Harmon, D-Oak Park. As we wrote in an editorial last week, Illinois’ pension problems date back decades — long before the coronavirus — and Harmon’s proposal was politically tone-deaf and dangerous, inviting criticism of our state.

The hubbub over what Harmon wrote distracts from the real truth: There’s nothing partisan about the economic devastation being wrought by COVID-19.

Red states and blue states alike are being rocked, and every state will need a federal rescue. Last week, the bipartisan National Governors Association — 26 Republicans and 24 Democrats — called on Congress to provide $500 billion in “unrestricted fiscal support” to avert “significant reductions to critically important services all across the country.”

If McConnell, Trump or anybody else wants to prohibit federal aid from going directly to pension funds, they’re right to do so. But to exploit that issue — as well as the pre-pandemic financial troubles of other states — to deny the very real need for bipartisan federal support for state and local governments would be unconscionable.

McConnell’s other bright suggestion is that states declare bankruptcy. In the midst of a fiscal crisis that threatens to slide into a second Great Depression, his solution would be for states to stiff creditors, fire or reduce the pay of hundreds of thousands of workers, slash health care and retirement benefits, and cut back on services to the mentally ill, the disabled and the elderly.

How very Herbert Hoover of him.

States can’t print money

The heart of the problem for states and cities is that they have a limited ability to raise revenue in times of crisis. Unlike the federal government, they can’t print their own money. Yet they are obligated to provide many of the most essential services of government, including police protection, mass transit, clean water, education and health care.

How Illinois will pull that off without federal assistance we can’t begin to imagine. As a result of the pandemic, Gov. J.B. Pritzker estimates, Illinois will suffer a $2.7 billion budget shortfall for the final two and a half months of the current fiscal year, and a $7.4 billion shortfall next fiscal year.

Underlying McConnell’s disdain for a federal assist to states and cities is the old notion, a given among rural and Southern Republicans, that blue states and northern cities already are sucking Washington dry while padding payrolls with armies of Democratic patronage workers.

To the first point, we would note that Illinois receives only 42 cents in federal funds for every dollar it sends to Washington. Mitch McConnell’s Kentucky gets $1.49 back in federal funds for every $1 it sends. Illinois gives while Kentucky takes.

To the second point, we would note that Illinois has done a credible job of reducing the size of government in the last decade. In 2014 — the last year for which we could find comparable numbers — Illinois state government employed 49 people (full-time equivalents) per 10,000 residents, according to Governing magazine, while McConnell’s Kentucky employed 100 people per 10,000 residents.

Quit the games

So how about this?

If a federal aid package to assist states and cities would be nothing but a “blue state bailout,” show us the Republican governor who says their state doesn’t need it, doesn’t deserve it and won’t take it.

Any takers?

Let’s quit the games, then, and save the country.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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