ANOTHER VIEW: Bail out states, not pension funds
State and local governments, like the rest of us, are getting hammered by the coronavirus. Their revenue from taxes is in free fall. They have few services they can cut and, in areas such as health care and the processing of unemployment checks, they need to spend more.
What have President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell done in response? They have stirred up a ruckus by suggesting that states go through bankruptcy rather than get bailed out with federal aid.
Let us state unequivocally that Trump and McConnell are wrong.
They are wrong because the case for states getting immediate help to cover the losses from the coronavirus pandemic is strong — stronger, in fact, than the case for many of the corporations lining up at the public trough.
McConnell is also wrong, as a technical matter, in using the term bankruptcy. Our system treats states as sovereign entities, meaning that they fall outside bankruptcy laws. The state, and its cities and counties, would become outcasts, unable to finance big projects through bond markets, and unattractive to new and existing businesses.
Even so, Trump and McConnell are right in the sense that some states have been irresponsible for years in agreeing to overly generous pensions for public employees or not making the necessary annual payments to keep their pensions afloat. Or both. State politicians seeking votes have found it too easy to make promises to public employees and let future generations worry about paying the bills.
The best course would be for Congress to give states immediate assistance to deal with pandemic-related ravages, then come back to the increasingly dire condition of some states later in the year, perhaps in a lame-duck session after the election.
Some states that have put themselves in huge holes don’t deserve a break. Nevertheless, there are enough of them that they can’t simply be cast adrift without major consequences to the economy.
A few states have one or more pension funds that are beyond repair. The worst is Illinois, where several funds representing state and Chicago workers are so underfunded that it’s hard to imagine who’d be willing to make them anything close to whole.
Several states, including California, have huge pensions funds that have been inching ever closer to dangerous precipices for years. Congress would have a lot of leverage to force states and public employee unions to major concessions in return for help.
With states, what is needed is a clear-eyed look at why they are essential, what many have done wrong and what needs to be done now to fix the situation. Pension funds in the worst shape are not going to get anything close to a full bailout. Voting for such a thing would be political suicide for lawmakers in states that have been more responsible.
At the same time, proclamations that states should be thrown to the wolves are not very helpful, either. States shouldn’t be forced to default in the midst of a historic pandemic.
This guest editorial was originally published in USA Today.