When Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) moved to draw the line on sending further coronavirus aid for hard-hit state and local governments on Wednesday, it caused a backlash among Democrats and even some Republicans.
But on Friday, one of the most politically vulnerable members of McConnell’s Senate GOP backed the leader. In a tele-town hall with constituents Friday morning, Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) was asked by a constituent if the Senate would be voting to “bail out poorly-run states that were near-bankrupt” before COVID-19 hit.
“Personally, I don’t think we should, and I don’t think that we can,” responded Tillis. “I’m not so sure taxpayer dollars from North Carolina should go to a state, a county, or a city that, like you said, was in poor economic shape before we even had the virus.”
Though he cautioned he was open to looking at things on a “case-by-case” basis with an eye toward helping law enforcement and first responders, Tillis declared, “I don’t believe that I can support any measure that’s effectively a bailout for poorly-run state and local governments.”
“I’m more or less aligned with Leader McConnell on the issue,” said Tillis.
In four rounds of coronavirus response legislation so far, Congress has approved some $150 billion in relief funds for state and local governments, many of which are spiraling toward fiscal disaster because of a COVID-19 crisis that’s drying up their main sources of revenue. Those relief funds are beginning to be disbursed to state and local governments, but Democrats and some Republicans are insisting more will need to be appropriated in upcoming legislation due to the severity of the situation.
The issue figures to be the biggest sticking point in future negotiations over coronavirus relief. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said on Friday that there will be no next bill if it doesn’t include increased funds for state and local governments.
Tillis’ alignment with McConnell in this debate comes as the first-term GOP senator gears up for a stiff challenge from Democrat Cal Cunningham, a race that could be the most expensive and hard-fought Senate contest this November. In March, a super PAC aligned with McConnell set aside more money for TV ads to defend Tillis—$21.8 million—than any other battleground senator.
Though McConnell, Tillis, and other Republicans say they don’t want to reward poorly-managed jurisdictions with federal aid, nearly all governments in the country are facing some level of fiscal hardship because of the COVID-19 outbreak—including those in Tillis’ home state.
Tillis said during the Friday town hall that North Carolina “is among one of the best prepared states for what we’re going through right now,” the state government, local governments, and public institutions there are scrambling to respond to a fiscal disaster.
The North Carolina state legislature is set to reconvene in a special session next week to address the effects of the coronavirus outbreak. Lawmakers will be tasked with appropriating some $1.4 billion in relief aid set aside for them in the $2.2 trillion CARES Act that passed last month.
But Phil Berger, the Republican majority leader of the North Carolina state senate, told local news outlets on Friday that the state government is “staring down a multi-billion dollar revenue shortfall.”
"Our state's financial outlook is in a vastly different place than it was before this pandemic hit,” said Berger. Individual state agencies are facing significant gaps in funding: The N.C. Department of Transportation, for example, is facing a $300 million shortfall, which is delaying scheduled road work and other projects. DOT officials said the shortfall is because of the coronavirus.
Fifteen minutes before his town hall began this morning, Tillis retweeted a message from Ben Carson, the secretary of Housing and Urban Development, that his department will be sending $78 million to North Carolina local governments for various programs.
“I will continue to work to ensure our state has the resources it needs to get through this pandemic,” said Tillis.