Editorial: States, municipalities deserve federal assistance in health crisis
With the announcement of a deal Tuesday, the U.S. Senate set in motion likely imposition of a fourth economic stimulus package -- this one to shore up a loan program from previous stimulus legislation that was quickly depleted and to provide money for hospitals and coronavirus testing. To no one's surprise, the deal does not include the $41.6 billion-plus itemized in a letter last week from Illinois Senate President Don Harmon to the state's congressional delegation. That doesn't mean the chapter is closed, however.
Many states have consistently complained that Congress' previous allotment of a total of $150 billion for relief of coronavirus-related costs did not take their needs sufficiently into consideration. The National Governors Association recommended more than three times that amount, $500 billion, to compensate states and help municipalities and schools. In that context, Harmon's letter to Illinois congressmen laying out specific funding levels he would like to see is something less than the naked money grab it might appear at first blush.
Indeed, many of the states hardest hit by the pandemic have complained that they and their communities and schools do not have the resources to manage the financial impact of the disease.
President Donald Trump himself, as well as his treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, have acknowledged that the states will need more federal help. They've indicated support for the concept but want it addressed in separate future legislation.
For Illinoisans, whose Democratic governor has exchanged barbs with the Republican president, the outlook for that help may feel less than promising. While he may acknowledge some federal responsibility to help hard-hit states, President Trump has been strongly critical of many states' handling of the COVID-19 crisis, and congressional Republicans, including those in Illinois' own delegation, are not sympathetic to the plight of Democratic states like Illinois whose plight they believe, with some justification, is deepened by their own financial practices.
So, in that sense, the timing and the nature of Harmon's letter leaves much to be desired. But its basic theme should not be summarily discounted. Yes, thanks to decades of financial mismanagement, Illinois is even more poorly prepared to deal with a crisis of this nature than it should be, and, yes, there is room to question the amounts and targets Harmon laid out, including as they relate to pension costs. But the coronavirus emergency has seriously affected the state's efforts to address these problems, as well as, to a growing extent, the ability of many localities to provide even basic services like police and fire protection.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo struck at the root of the matter in remarks just before a Tuesday meeting with the president.
"I think it's a terrible mistake not to provide money for the states," he said. "I get small businesses, I get airlines. How about police? How about fire? How about health care workers? How about teachers? We're not going to fund schools? I don't get it."
One thing he, Harmon and all of us need to "get" is that this is not free money the federal government is handing out. Adding trillions and trillions of dollars to the nation's already burdensome debt load is sure to have painful consequences, so it is appropriate and important for Congress to be deliberate in how it provides stimulus and relief -- as long as leaders remember that a significant function of the federal government is to provide such help to states in a time of crisis.