Sen. Mitt Romney tells fellow GOP senators Congress may need to help states, local governments with coronavirus-related costs

(Susan Walsh | AP file photo) Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, heads into a Republican policy lunch on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, March 19, 2020.

Washington • Sen. Mitt Romney carried a large poster into the Republican caucus meeting on Tuesday showing a bar graph with the headline, “Blue states aren’t the only ones who are screwed.”

The graphic, pulled from the online news outlet Slate, showed states with big shortfalls in revenue because of the coronavirus outbreak, including drops of 32.4% in Louisiana — which topped the list — 21.3% in Missouri and 19.5% in Florida, all led by GOP governors.

Romney's point to his colleagues is that there shouldn't be a blanket refusal to help states — as some of his colleagues have argued — and any decision should be driven by proven need, not a blue state vs. red state mentality.

Whether to send federal aid to help the states struggling because of the pandemic has become a major sticking point in the discussion over the next round of legislation Congress is considering. Democrats, and some Republicans, say states must get help to avoid laying off police officers, firefighters and health care workers while most on the right flank, including President Donald Trump, are not keen on helping states solve budget crisis by deepening the federal debt.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, a state that faces a possible 16.5% drop in revenues, has said there will be no “blue state bailout,” and Trump has signaled he may tie any support to states to a crack down on immigration.

Romney suggested to his colleagues during the closed-door meeting Tuesday that the federal government may have to step up and help states who have acted as good stewards but whose budgets were hard hit by the pandemic. He did not say whether that aid should come or how much but suggested Congress look at the need, not the politics.

“As Congress considers relief funding now and in the future, it’s critical to look at actual COVID-19 related costs and revenue shortfalls — which differ dramatically between states — as opposed to assessing all states in the same way,” said Romney spokeswoman Liz Johnson. “That said, taxpayers should not bail out fiscally reckless states for non-COVID expenses like failing pensions.”

Romney said last week that every state is different in how it generates revenue and some will be hit differently by the pandemic.

“I think we we need to understand just how deep is the hole that states and municipalities are in,” Romney told reporters on a videoconference. “What kind of impact has the crisis had on their own revenues? And what are they seeing?”

“I think it's important to get the actual numbers to see how big a problem we're dealing with,” Romney added. “And it's essential that this effort to provide compensation to states not be used to pay back some of the profligacy of states that have excessive pension obligations or excessive spending or excessive, extensive deficits, that that's not what this is designed to do.”

Romney’s Utah colleague, Sen. Mike Lee, has already joined other Republicans in saying the federal government shouldn’t bail out states for expenses or budget gaps that have nothing to do with the coronavirus.

Lee, at the end of April, joined a letter with Sens. Rick Scott, of Florida, Ted Cruz of Texas, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Mike Enzi of Wyoming urging Trump to reject bailing out states for underfunded pensions or to make up for lost revenue.

“Unfortunately, we are hearing reports that some states and localities are advocating that a potential future Coronavirus response measure be used as a piggy bank for unrelated expenses that have nothing to do with responding to the Coronavirus,” the letter said. “As your administration works with Congress on any additional phases of Coronavirus response, we urge you to reject efforts by some states to use federal tax dollars for reasons unrelated to combatting Coronavirus. We believe additional money sent to the states for 'lost revenue' or without appropriate safeguards will be used to bail out unfunded pensions, reward decades of state mismanagement and incentivize states to become more reliant on federal taxpayers.”

The senators added that they support money to respond to the virus outbreak to protect frontline workers but not to give a blank check to states and local governments.

As Lee and Romney stake out their position on relief for state and local governments, a union of public workers is launching a new advertisement urging Trump and Congress to “approve desperately needed state and local aid to keep front-line public service workers on the job to fight the pandemic and reopen the economy.”

“Front-line health care workers, corrections officers, home and child care providers, sanitation workers and other public service workers put their lives on the line every day to save ours. America refuses to thank them with pink slips,” said Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. “Public service workers and the services they provide are essential to beating this pandemic and opening the economy.”

The union says a large majority of Americans support federal aid to states and local governments and understand that without help, public services may take a deep cut at a time when their services are needed.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert joined 21 fellow Republican governors in a letter in March asking for “direct assistance” from Congress.

“Injecting states with resources would give governors the ability to respond to the unique needs of each state with the speed and flexibility that is required to respond to this monumental challenge,” the governors wrote.