Elizabeth Scott lives in New Iberia, Louisiana. She was an Advocacy Corps Organizer with the Friends Committee on National Legislation from 2016-2017 and is a University of Louisiana at Lafayette graduate (class of 2017) with a BA in Political Science. She is currently pursuing a Master of Public Administration degree.
Earlier this year, as the COVID-19 pandemic was getting exponentially worse, Congress rushed to provide funding to keep businesses afloat. While important, it came at the expense of other priorities – especially state and local governments. Their stressed budgets are a focal point in the next COVID-19 bill. And the ongoing negotiations highlight just how bad Congress’s double standard is in funding the private over public sector.
Propping up businesses without oversight leads to small businesses being denied equal loan access. Wall Street investors, politically connected private businesses, and even Louisiana’s own Ruth’s Chris Steak House accessed funds designed for small businesses. Shamelessly, some publicly traded companies refused to return funding, even after the government tried to force the issue.
This raises troubling facts. While Congress leaves no stone unturned to help businesses with few strings attached, priorities like childcare, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and state and local government funding get ignored.
Just imagine if people in Louisiana lost access to SNAP or saw their benefits decrease in value, which will likely happen without additional federal funding and guarantees. In the last year alone, roughly 810,000 of our citizens received some amount of SNAP benefits. That works out to 1 in 6 people, or 17 percent of the population. And more than 70 percent of those recipients are families with children. Between 2013 and 2016, SNAP kept an average of 160,000 Louisianans out of poverty each year, including 78,000 children. Tens of thousands of individuals and families across the state are at risk of being unable to put food on the table and this need has soared, especially among families of color.
As the Louisiana Budget Project recently noted, a temporary increase in SNAP benefits was one of the last items left out of the previous COVID-19 relief bill. It is calling to include them this time out in order to both keep everyone fed and boost the local economy. People spend their SNAP dollars quickly to buy food, and those dollars support our local merchants.
State and local governments are crucial for supporting and rebuilding our economy. They administer the Children’s Health Insurance Program, Medicaid, and unemployment insurance – all of which reduce poverty and stimulate the economy. Failing to reimburse states for these costs makes the current recession both longer and deeper.
Right now, Louisiana is running up a $293 million budget shortfall for the recently completed fiscal year while staring down an alarming $970 million shortfall for our current fiscal year. Louisiana cities are faring no better. New Orleans is facing a $170 million budget shortfall. This is not sustainable.
Senator – and doctor – Bill Cassidy seems to understand just how serious this problem really is. He has made recent, positive statements on the plight of state and local government budgets. Louisiana has been hard hit by COVID-19 and who knows when the state will get back to normal. As Cassidy wrote in May:
As Congress drafts the next round of covid-19 spending, lawmakers are debating whether to give states money. We should. Without such funding, cities and municipalities will be forced to lay off workers and may therefore be unable to provide basic services to keep small and medium-size businesses running.
That still makes perfect sense. But then came Memorial Day weekend. COVID-19 infections have skyrocketed ever since, with no reasonable person believing they will slow (let alone stop) any time soon. Small and medium-size businesses need a lot of things right now just to stay open. But that list begins with paying customers. Laying off the workers that provide the basic services to keep businesses running would start an avalanche of economic calamity that would take years – if not decades – to claw back from. It must be a non-starter.
But Sen. Cassidy may have a difficult time making this case to the Senate once again. While we all know the situation has only gotten worse in the last couple of months, this has caused many to stick their heads even deeper in the sand. Cassidy’s colleague John Neely Kennedy was not in favor of what he calls “bailing out” the states. He said, “It’s not the federal government’s job to bail out local and state officials who spent recklessly,” even though very few, if any, states are spending that way.
Perhaps the cold hard budget math has begun to change Kennedy’s mind. Or maybe it is the staggering death toll that slowly grows in Louisiana and nationwide each and every day. Either way, however grudgingly, he has changed his tune a bit. Kennedy recently explained, “For months, state and local governments have been working under the weight of an incredible health crisis. Giving those governments the flexibility to help their communities weather this pandemic—by using money they already have—is a no-brainer.” Please Senator, convey that message to the rest of your caucus.
The fact is, many states created rainy-day funds in anticipation of an economic downturn – but the impact of COVID-19 far surpasses what they can cover. The public sector already lost over 1 million jobs since the crisis began, and states have shed approximately 25,000 jobs just last month. Over 700 cities stopped planned infrastructure upgrades due to holes in their budgets caused by COVID-19. In fact, Louisiana cities are projected to come up more than 32 percent shy of expected revenue in 2020.
Balanced budget amendments could force even harsher cuts. States rely on sales/income tax for approximately 70 percent of their revenues. When that disappears – combined with an increased demand for assistance programs – state governments are forced to increase taxes and dramatically slash funding. This forces hardship on millions who are already struggling. Hence the glaring problem: Congress has a double standard utilizing the power of the purse. In each COVID-19 response bill, they prioritized businesses over state and local governments. This shows they value uncertain economic benefit over state-supported assistance programs proven to reduce poverty and stabilize the economy.
But it also sets up a false choice of private business vs. local governments. We are all in this together, with no need to pit one side against another in an unnecessary zero-sum exercise. Private business could not exist as we currently know it without some form of appropriate government oversight and partnership. And government (federal, state, local, and everything in-between) could not survive without the revenue stream private business provide. Who would dispute that? No one. So let’s not make enemies of the two.
Now with state funding taking center stage, Congress has started “caring” about the debt and deficit. Senate Majority Leader McConnell said he’s “…not interested in borrowing money from future generations to help states solve problems that they created themselves.” Politicians don’t use this rhetoric talking about problems businesses have created for themselves. They would rather reward them with millions and virtually no strings attached.
Perhaps most troubling of all, recent reporting indicates the Trump administration is trying to block billions of dollars for states to conduct testing and contact tracing. Additionally, they are trying to block billions that GOP senators were hoping to allocate for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, on top of additional funding for the Defense and State Departments to address and mitigate the pandemic both at home and abroad. No, the Federal Treasury cannot be treated as a bottomless pit of money. But if we are not willing and able to spend what needs to be spent to defeat this virus, what else is there? What are we saving for if COVID-19 becomes the new norm? More bailouts? Three martini lunch write-offs?
No, local government is not and will never be sexy. Not when compared to the likes of Tesla, bigtime pro sports (Geaux Saints!), or Google. But let’s try going a day without our local water utility. How long will we last without trash pick-up? If public schools disappear tomorrow, what will we do? That’s a real concern. The NBA playing in an Orlando bubble is not.
The fact that funding for state governments is becoming increasingly politicized and turning into a bargaining chip for the next COVID-19 bill is catastrophic for our future. Congress cannot shirk its fundamental responsibilities to protect all citizens from enduring undue hardship. If we fail to fund our state and local governments, it will not only mark a new congressional low but hurt millions who are already struggling.