The pandemic has not been kind to Fresno, the poorest major city in California. The unemployment rate spiked above 10 percent and has stubbornly remained there. Violent crime has surged, as has homelessness. Tax revenue has plummeted as businesses have shuttered. Lines at food banks are filled with first-timers.
“That,” said Jerry Dyer, mayor of the half-million-strong city in the Central Valley, “is going to be devastating.”
The looming cuts explain why Dyer’s eyes are fixed on Washington, where President Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan dangles the tantalizing prospect of a reprieve. Though Dyer is a Republican, he’s rooting for the president to successfully push through federal aid that, after a nightmarish year for Fresno, will “help get us to the end.”
The first-term mayor’s stance reflects a broader split, one that gives Biden and his fellow Democrats a key tactical advantage as negotiations near an expected climax early next month.
Republicans in Congress overwhelmingly oppose the relief bill, casting it as bloated and budget-busting, with some heaping particular scorn on a measure to send $350 billion in assistance to states and cities. Should Biden go ahead without their approval, GOP leaders say, it will prove that his mantra of bipartisanship rings hollow.
But to many Republicans at city halls and statehouses across the country, the relief package looks very different. Instead of the “blue-state bailout” derided by GOP lawmakers, Republican mayors and governors say they see badly needed federal aid to keep police on the beat, to prevent battered Main Street businesses from going under and to help care for the growing ranks of the homeless and the hungry.
“It’s not a Republican issue or a Democrat issue,” said Dyer, who became mayor last month following a long career as the city’s police chief. “It’s a public health issue. It’s an economic issue. And it’s a public safety issue.”
Surveys show that a broad majority of Americans support the assistance, including large numbers of Republicans. Only a minority among Republican voters agree with GOP lawmakers that the aid package is too large, polls have found.
Biden on Friday highlighted the rift, inviting a bipartisan group of mayors and governors to the White House to discuss the specifics of the bill.
“You folks are all on the front lines and dealing with the crisis since day one,” he told the group, which included the Republican governors of Maryland and Arkansas, as well as Republican mayors.
Miami Mayor Francis Suarez (R) later told reporters from the podium in the White House briefing room that he had spoken with Biden and Vice President Harris more in the first several weeks of their administration “than I had spoken to the prior administration in the entirety.”
Biden said he brought the group to the White House to ask “what do they think they need most.”
To many mayors and governors, it’s a long list.
“I don’t know of any city that hasn’t been affected negatively,” Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt (R) said. “Some may be worse off than others. But we have all had to make cuts.”
The impact has not been as severe as some economists initially projected, however. When the pandemic first struck American shores and much of the U.S. economy shut down last spring, the prognosis for states and cities looked dire. Analysts warned that cities — some of which had still not fully recovered from the Great Recession more than a decade ago — could be forced into bankruptcy.
But some of the worst consequences have already been blunted by previous rounds of federal aid, as well as by the nature of the economic recovery, with high-income individuals — who contribute much of the state and local tax base — bouncing back relatively quickly, even as poorer families languish.
When 10 Republican senators visited the White House this month to lay out their slimmed-down $618 billion counterproposal to the president’s plan, Mitt Romney (Utah) came brandishing details from a J.P. Morgan analysis showing that most states had seen only modest revenue declines.
Romney later told reporters that Biden’s insistence on $350 billion in state and local aid was the biggest stumbling block in negotiations.
“That kind of number just makes no sense at all,” he said. The Republican plan proposed to cut it entirely.
Yet as the J.P. Morgan analysis shows, the impact of the pandemic has been unevenly felt, with some states — especially those whose economies are heavily dependent on tourism or oil and gas extraction — suffering dramatic declines.
A Brookings Institution analysis in September found that although income tax revenue had proved resilient during the pandemic, sales tax and transportation-related revenue had been hit especially hard. As a result, states and cities were projected to lose out on more than $450 billion over three years.
And the pain hasn’t only been on the revenue side. New needs arising from the pandemic have created new costs.
“Cities were confronting some really big challenges even before this crisis — income inequality, homelessness, housing affordability,” said Tracy Gordon, acting director of the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center.
All have been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, she said. But many cities now have fewer resources with which to address them.
In Oklahoma City, Holt said, revenue has been down by about 5 percent, a sharp departure from the robust growth the city had become accustomed to before the pandemic. To compensate, he said, the city has had to leave jobs unfilled and cut funding for parks and recreation, even as the overall needs of citizens and businesses have grown.
“We don’t do much fluff here,” he said. “So whatever we’ve had to cut, residents have experienced it.”
Republican lawmakers in Washington have dismissed aid to cities as a bailout for governments that have long spent beyond their means.
But Holt called that “a red herring.” Most state and city governments — unlike the federal government — have to balance their budgets, just as a business would.
But unlike businesses large and small that have received grants or loans to make up for the damage done by the coronavirus, cities have been left out.
“In a sense, we’re the only employer that hasn’t been able to make an application to anyone to save our jobs and save our services,” said Holt, who noted that the city government is one of his metro area’s biggest employers. “Support for cities and states is way overdue.”
There has been some relief. The Cares Act, signed into law by President Donald Trump last March, included $150 billion for states and for the nation’s 38 largest cities. But money had to be spent directly on coronavirus expenses, creating logistical hurdles in getting it out the door. Nearly a year later, some of it remains unspent, a point Republicans make in arguing for why additional taxpayer dollars should not be allocated.
The aid proposed by Biden would not have the same restrictions. Mayors say that will make it easier to quickly get it into the hands of those who need it and to stimulate economic growth.
Betsy Price proudly calls Fort Worth, the metropolis of nearly 900,000 she has led for the past decade, “a fiscally conservative city.” But the Republican said the pandemic has forced the city government to spend more just to keep people afloat, doling out small-business support, rental assistance and help with utility bills.
Price joined more than 400 fellow mayors late last month — including many Republicans — in signing a U.S. Conference of Mayors letter that called on Congress to quickly pass Biden’s coronavirus relief plan. She said she had spoken with both of Texas’s senators — Republicans Ted Cruz and John Cornyn — and made the same case.
“We’re not asking the Democrats or the Republicans to put money into city coffers,” she said. “We’re asking them to put it into the community to help people get back on their feet.”
The National Governors Association has not released a letter similar to the one endorsed by the mayors. But the group did call for $500 billion in relief for states last spring. And individual Republican governors have spoken up to back Biden’s relief plan, which can be enacted without GOP support. That includes moderates such as Maryland’s Larry Hogan, as well as Trump-aligned conservatives such as West Virginia’s Jim Justice, who has urged Congress to “go big.”
Suarez, the Miami mayor, has pushed the same message and has put pressure on Florida’s two Republican senators, Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, to follow through.
The Republican recently co-wrote an op-ed with St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, a Democrat, in which they addressed the senators directly and enumerated the problems facing their cities, including unemployment, bankrupt business and lines at food pantries that look like “gridlocked freeways.”
“Florida’s cities are in agony and are crying out for help,” they wrote. “This is not sustainable.”
In an interview, Suarez said both senators have been receptive to his message in private, though they also expressed concerns about the price tag — concerns that Suarez said he could understand, to a point.
“Under normal circumstances, this kind of government spending would be completely unacceptable,” he said. “But this is a crisis.”