WASHINGTON — Bryan Barnett preaches small government, touts fiscal responsibility and backed Donald Trump in November’s presidential election.
But Barnett, the Republican mayor of Rochester Hills, Mich., is also lobbying for approval of President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill while Republicans in Congress stand in lockstep against the proposal.
As Biden’s relief package heads for a vote Friday in the Democrat-controlled House – where it is expected to pass with perhaps no Republican support – cash-strained city halls are some of the legislation’s biggest boosters.
That includes Republican mayors seeking federal assistance to replenish tax revenue shortages.
“The need is real and it’s not just in Democratic-core communities,” said Barnett, whose city, a suburb north of Detroit, narrowly voted for Biden in 2020 after years of supporting Republicans.
In all, 32 Republican mayors – from mid-sized cities such as Oklahoma City and Mesa, Ariz., to smaller ones like Carmel, Ind., and Mooresville, N.C. – are among 425 mayors nationally who urged passage of Biden’s COVID-19 relief package in a letter through the U.S. Conference of Mayors to Congress. Despite their efforts, no Republicans in the House or Senate have publicly supported the bill.
In Rochester Hills, like other cities, restaurants and other small businesses closed or scaled back to follow social distancing guidelines amid the pandemic.
Barnett said his city took in “millions and millions” less in tax revenue as property tax and commercial tax collections declined. Even the canceling of youth soccer cost the city hundreds of thousands in fees. As a result, the city last year furloughed more than 40 employees, canceled road projects and postponed improvements to public buildings.
Barnett’s message to Republican critics: “Talk to some of the Republican mayors.”
“This isn’t because of some gross mismanagement or some bad contracts that were signed or historic deficits. This is about addressing the needs of a global pandemic that are really (for) the same constituents they serve in D.C. that we’re serving here at the local level.”
‘I’m just scratching my head,’ one Republican mayor says as lawmakers slam ‘bailout’
Mayors covet the $350 billion in direct aid Biden’s legislation, dubbed the American Rescue Plan, would pump into state and local governments and the $130 billion more for the reopening of public schools. A $900 billion COVID-19 relief package that passed in December, when Republicans controlled the Senate and occupied the White House, contained no financial aid for state and local governments.
Republicans in Congress have objected to the steep price tag of Biden’s bill and slammed the city and state relief as an unneeded bailout for liberal-controlled cities and states that mismanaged finances. They’ve also noted revenue growth across all state and local governments declined only marginally since the pandemic hit – a far cry from more draconian projections last spring.
“What I see is a bailout for poorly run (cities and states),” Rep. Trent Kelly, R-Miss., said at a House committee meeting this week, “not money that is earmarked for those who have discovered losses based on COVID.”
But even in Mesa, Ariz., where revenue collections increased slightly – thanks to healthier sales tax collections than expected from online shopping – Republican Mayor John Giles said it hasn’t been enough to cover the city’s expanded services during the pandemic.
“I’m just scratching my head trying to figure out why this would be a partisan issue,” Giles said, “because what we’re talking about is COVID relief, which should be a nonpartisan issue.”
He said Mesa has seen federal funding deplete to hold twice-a-week food distribution events at the city’s convention center, which draws around 1,500 families each time. His city also needs funds to maintain rental and utility assistance to help families avoid homelessness.
“These aren’t bells and whistles we’re talking about. These are the essentials of life and the essentials of keeping families together and keeping them housed and fed.”
Biden looks to GOP mayors to make case for bipartisanship
Lacking Republican support for his bill in the House or Senate, Biden has turned to the bipartisan coalition of mayors to argue his proposal has support from both parties. Biden has also pointed to polls that show widespread public support.
A Morning Consult poll this week found 76% of Americans support passage of the legislation, including 60% of Republican voters, 71% of independents and 89% of Democrats.
Several of the Republican mayors who back passage lead cities that have trended Democratic in recent years in otherwise heavily conservative states. Most are moderates and some were critics of Trump. Many hold nonpartisan offices despite their own party allegiances.
“I’m a one-issue voter,” said David Holt, Republican mayor of Oklahoma City and a Trump critic. “If it’s good for cities, and especially for Oklahoma City, I’m going to be supportive. The $350 billion for cities and states is a no-brainer to me, regardless of your political party.”
Sales tax collections, Oklahoma City’s primary revenue stream, are down 5% in the current fiscal year, according to Holt. The city instituted 11% cuts in all non-public safety departments and a hiring freeze on new police officers and firefighters.
The federal CARES Act, which Trump signed into law last March, provided $150 billion through the Coronavirus Relief Fund to all states as well as the 38 cities with more than 500,000 people. But funds were limited to expenses “directly related” to COVID-19 – not replacing lost revenue like Biden’s bill would do.
“We did for everybody else the one thing the bill couldn’t do for ourselves,” Holt said, referring to the CARES Act. “We helped people stay in business. We helped people pay their employees. We couldn’t do that for our own employees. That’s why this second tranche is so important.”
Oklahoma’s two Republican senators oppose the legislation, however. U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., called it “jam packed with a liberal wishlist.” And though acknowledging the hardships of a pandemic, Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., said, “adding more and more debt without a plan makes a bad situation worse.”
Holt said he respects their positions. “They know how we feel,” he said, “and I understand they have to have a broader perspective beyond just this piece of the package.”
‘The pandemic has hurt all of us’
As Democrats tout the overall popularity of the bill, Republicans in Congress believe they can prevail politically by attacking the legislation as the product of spend-hungry liberals who have gained power.
Republicans seized on a recent J.P. Morgan study that found revenue growth in state governments declined only .12% collectively since the pandemic hit as evidence the $350 billion in federal aid isn’t needed. While 26 states experienced a revenue decline, the report found 21 states saw positive revenue growth in 2020 compared with 2019.
Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, said $350 billion for state and local aid “makes no sense at all.” In a Wall Street Journal op-ed Tuesday, he called it “wasteful and harmful” and said it would “create incentives for the mismanagement that got some states into fiscal trouble in the first place.”
But the line of attack ignores that states on average had anticipated 3% growth in 2020 before the pandemic, according to the National Association of Budget Officers. Instead, the general fund revenue decline is the first since the Great Recession.
“This pandemic has hurt all of us,” said Mike Vandersteen, mayor of Sheboygan, Wis., a manufacturing city along Lake Michigan with water attractions that normally draw tourists. He said the pandemic has “devastated” the city’s hospitality industry. Hotel-motel tax collections are down, along with the city’s sale of water to industries, creating a $1.75 million revenue loss.
Vandersteen said the American Rescue Plan might provide “more (money) than we need,” but he also pointed to his city’s $40 million in backlogged water infrastructure projects, which he relayed to Rep. Glenn Grothman, R-Wisc., the area’s congressman.
“We’re hoping that some of the money from this bill can be used for those kinds of projects,” Vandersteen said. “We need to get people working again. We were at a great spot before the pandemic came.”
Arlington, Texas, Mayor Jeff Williams, a Republican and top point person with the U.S. Conference of Mayors to push for the relief bill, compared the pandemic to a flood that would result in federal aid for emergency services.
“There wouldn’t be anybody saying that it was a bailout,” Williams said. “Well, this is a natural disaster that we have in the pandemic. Unlike a flood that comes and is over in a few days, this pandemic has continued on and we don’t know when the end of it is.”
Williams and Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, also a Republican, were among four mayors who met with Biden in the White House on Feb. 12 to discuss the relief bill. Two Democrats, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, attended as well.
Because Miami, with a population of 468,000, didn’t meet the threshold to receive direct funds through the CARES Act, Suarez said the city received $15 million, all delivered through Miami-Dade County, and missed out on millions more.
“We’re on the ground and we’re seeing things from a very intimate perspective,” Suarez said. “Some of the federal elected officials are looking at this more from a 500,000-foot perspective, which is understandable. Some of them want to see a little more accountability with how some of the money is spent.”
Giles, of Mesa, said mayors would be fine if “guardrails” are added to the bill dictating how funds can be used.
“I think that concern that Republicans have – that this money will somehow be misdirected – that can be dealt with in the legislation,” he said.
Barnett said the citizens of Rochester Hills aren’t interested in “the games being played in Washington” – they just want help for the city’s small businesses.
“The people in my community, they don’t relate this to McConnell versus Schumer. They relate this to the Ram’s Horn restaurant and the ownership that they know personally and the wait staff that they know personally. It’s the dry cleaner that they go to every Monday morning. That’s what it’s like in the frontlines in America.”
Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison.
Source: USA Today – Breaking News