May 26, 2020

Stretching the Threads

By Stephen Tuttle | May 9, 2020

Our national togetherness apparently only went so far and lasted so long. Now the inevitable partisanship and ugly parochialism have invaded our best intentions. 
When states hit hardest by Covid-19 asked a thus-far very generous Congress for some financial help, it didn't seem like an illogical request. Their resources and budgets have been stretched the thinnest, requiring significant expenditures while revenues shrank. 
But no. President Trump said they were all “badly managed” states and run by Democrats. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell suggested, right out loud, that those states should consider declaring bankruptcy. How destroying a state's credit rating, devaluing or destroying the return on its bonds, making huge budget cuts (including to essential services), undertaking massive layoffs, and gutting pensions would help revive the economy is somewhat mysterious.    
Sen. Rick Scott of Florida wondered why his taxpayers should have to support other states when, after all, Floridians “take care of our own.” Texas Governor Greg Abbot had similar notions. 
There is no evidence that any governor struggling to contain this bug in their state has done any mismanaging. These governors sounded the alarm first when COVID-19 started spreading and then, again first, regarding medical equipment and supplies. They were weeks ahead of the federal government in issuing social distancing orders and closing nonessential businesses. They've been forced to conduct their own testing, competing with each other for basic equipment like swabs and reagents. Given the remarkably inept federal response, the governors dealing with the most serious outbreaks have done admirable jobs. 
So, asking for help in a national emergency — when most everybody and everything else is being bailed out — isn't so outrageous. Especially when the resistance is coming from states that are often the recipients of such help in their own emergencies — and happily accept federal money, i.e., tax dollars from all of us, in general. 
Every year, the Rockefeller Institute of Government, a nonpartisan public policy think tank, produces a report comparing how much money states pay to the federal government and how much they get back. The institute uses a simple enough formula: add up all the federal taxes and fees paid and compare that with all the federal dollars the state receives in the form of projects, programs, services, and grants. Then they just do the arithmetic to figure out how much a state gets back for every dollar it paid. 
The vast majority of states, 42 in fact, receive more than a dollar for their dollar spent. Only Connecticut, Colorado, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, and Utah are so-called donor states, paying more than they receive. 
Florida, the state that takes care of its own, gets back $1.12 for every dollar spent. But those numbers don't always include disaster relief, and Florida gets plenty of that. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) pegs the annual cost of hurricane damage from wind and flooding — including lost wages, lost jobs, and lost businesses, in addition to structural damage — at $54 billion; about 55 percent of that goes to Florida alone. 
(The big winner of federal largesse shouldn't be a surprise. McConnell's home state of Kentucky gets a whopping $2.41 for every dollar spent. Poor Connecticut does the worst, returning only 84 cents on the dollar. New York gets 91 cents. Michigan does well, receiving $1.24.)
If we want to play the why-should-we-pay-for-them game, then let's start with Florida. After all, their decades and decades of poor decisions have dramatically exacerbated the impact of hurricanes. They drained the wetlands that absorbed storm surges and put crops and houses there. They destroyed the natural dune barriers and replaced them with hotels and resorts. So why should we pay billions every time a hurricane comes calling?
Same thing with the interminable flooding in Houston, where we've spent billions more. Isn't that their problem and not ours? Why should the rest of us pay for tornadoes that rip through the Plains or the Southeast? Why should we help with the drought ravaging the West when we have plenty of water? For that matter, why should the rest of the country pay for the damage being done by surging Great Lakes levels?
We could stretch this until the threads that hold us together are completely broken.

The reason we help in dire circumstances is because it is the right thing to do, and even though we live in semi-autonomous states, we function as a single collective when we have to.  
We see this shared responsibility all the time among individuals and in communities large and small, just as we are seeing it now — people helping each other because it is the right and decent thing to do.
It's a shame too many of our national politicians don't seem to share that instinct to help. Nor understand their obligations to all of us in a national emergency. 


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