The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The misleading rhetoric on blue states needing to be ‘bailed out’ by the federal government

President Trump gives thumbs-up as he arrives to speak at an event at the White House to sign a new North American trade agreement with Canada and Mexico, Jan. 29, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

It’s safe to assume that President Trump was watching Monday morning’s episode of “Fox & Friends” when he decided to weigh in on the need to provide additional federal economic assistance to states such as Illinois in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Why should the people and taxpayers of America be bailing out poorly run states (like Illinois, as example) and cities, in all cases Democrat run and managed, when most of the other states are not looking for bailout help?” Trump wrote on Twitter. “I am open to discussing anything, but just asking?”

That same question had been posed by Fox News’s Ed Henry to the governor of South Dakota two hours prior. Henry raised comments from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) about budget shortfalls being experienced in various states, asking Gov. Kristi L. Noem (R) why taxpayers in her state should bail out Illinois. Noem, judiciously, didn’t engage on the cross-state comparison.

Since McConnell rejected the idea of providing assistance to states with budget shortfalls stemming from the pandemic last week, this idea that states (often Republican-led ones) shouldn’t be asked to pony up for other states (often, as Trump noted, Democratic-led ones) has become something of a mantra. Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) made the point on Monday as well.

“It’s not fair to the taxpayers of Florida,” Scott said. “We sit here, we live within our means, and then New York, Illinois, California and other states don’t. And we’re supposed to go bail them out? That’s not right.”

The context that’s missing here is that the federal government weighs in to support states all the time. Noem’s and Scott’s states are, on net, beneficiaries of that support, while states like Illinois and New York are not. McConnell’s state of Kentucky is the most lopsided in terms of how much it gives to the federal coffers versus how much it gets.

The Rockefeller Institute of Government regularly compiles an analysis of how much states give and get in federal support. Its most recent analysis, released in January, shows that eight states get less from the federal government than they contribute: Connecticut, Colorado, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York and Utah. Connecticut gets the least in return for its contributions, getting 84 cents back for every dollar it contributes. Kentucky, on the other hand, gets $2.41 back for each dollar.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) is clearly aware of the discrepancies at play.

On a per capita basis, New Yorkers each contribute $1,125 more than they receive from the federal government. Residents of Illinois each get about $27 more back in value from the federal government than they contribute. Floridians, on the other hand, each net $1,169 from the federal government, while South Dakotans get $1,387.

Each resident of Kentucky nets more than $10,000 on average.

There’s not a strong relationship between how red or blue a state is and how much it contributes or receives from the federal government on net. It is the case, though, that states that supported Hillary Clinton in 2016 see about $1.27 in value for each dollar they give to the federal government, while states that backed Trump get $1.43. It’s also the case that the five states that get the worst returns on their federal investment (to frame it in that awkward way) are all blue: Connecticut, New Jersey, Massachusetts, New York and Colorado, in that order.

There are some causal overlaps here. New York generates a lot of tax revenue because of New York City — which was the main U.S. hotbed of the coronavirus outbreak because of its density. It’s also the case that the relationship of federal tax spending and receipts doesn’t overlap entirely with the question of how effectively states are managing their own budgets. That said, if New York could figure out a way to shift to its own budget the money it pays to the federal government in excess of what it receives, it would have gained about $22 billion from 2015 to 2018.

Put another way: the framing offered by Trump, Scott and McConnell, that blue states don’t deserve federal largesse? It does, in fact, seem like a risky standard for them to set.