State and Local Governments Need Some Tough Love From Uncle Sam

“A report from the National League of Cities in May revealed that the states weren’t very good at getting the money to local governments. Also, a new dataset collected by the Department of the Treasury Office of Inspector General that looks at how much the state and local governments have spent of their coronavirus relief bill funds as of June 30 shows that they have spent much less than you might think.

Some states have spent virtually none of the money allocated by Uncle Sam.

South Carolina, for example, has yet to use its $2 billion in relief. Michigan, which is asking for a bailout, spent only 3 percent of the more than $3 billion it received. New Jersey is also asking for a bailout, yet it has distributed a measly 2.1 percent of its federal funds so far.

The states demanding bailouts may likely argue that what they really need is more flexibility in order to be able to use federal funds to address their revenue shortfalls. As matters stand right now, states must use the bailout money on coronavirus-related expenditures. So, when those actual expenditures are lower than the allocated funds, they can’t spend them.

The flexibility argument doesn’t hold water, in my opinion. It’s one thing for state and local governments to ask the federal government for help to cover expenditures they couldn’t foresee, such as those related to the pandemic. But they shouldn’t be asking federal taxpayers to pay for their routine expenditures, especially when these governments have failed to plan appropriately for revenue shortfalls that inevitably occur, as they’re bound to encounter emergencies. Governments should prepare for them. They should cut spending and, if that’s not enough, they should turn to their own citizens for the funds needed to cover non-coronavirus expenditures. Those funds could be obtained through higher taxes or spending cuts elsewhere. Their routine spending should come from their taxes.

State and local governments are always eager to have the federal government solve their financial problems for them. But they will continue to have financial difficulties as long as Uncle Sam continues to cave. The first step toward having healthier and more responsible state and local governments would be no bailout.”