With more shutdowns looming and a vaccine months away from wide distribution, governors across the United States are pleading for more help from Washington ahead of what is shaping up to be a bleak winter.
Renewed restrictions on indoor businesses, the coming end of unemployment benefits for millions of Americans and overloaded hospitals have led governors to paint a dire picture of the months ahead unless the federal government steps in with more money and leadership to help them shore up their damaged budgets and beat back the resurgence of the coronavirus.
Between now and June 2022, state and local governments could be facing a shortfall or US$400 billion or more by some estimates.
Casey Katims, federal liaison for Washington Governor Jay Inslee, said there is a "dire and urgent need for congressional action to support workers and families." He said the state is facing a significant budget shortfall because of the pandemic and can't wait until President-elect Joe Biden is sworn in on January 20.
Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker signed a budget over the northern summer with a US$5 billion deficit, which he and lawmakers assumed would be covered by a second federal coronavirus relief package that has not materialised.
"Every state ... every city is suffering from failure of revenues because of Covid-19," said Pritzker, a Democrat. "The federal government is really the only resource that we all have to turn to."
Today, Pritzker was scheduled to join other governors of Great Lakes states — Democrats and Republicans alike — in calling for help with testing, contact tracing and hospital staffing, in addition to more money for businesses, schools and the unemployed.
The cost of distributing tens of millions of doses of a vaccine in 2021 is also emerging as a major concern for governors. The Association of State and Territorial Health Officers and the Association of Immunisation Managers have called on Congress to provide US$8.4b for vaccine distribution.
A new infusion of federal money does not appear to be on the way anytime soon. A lame-duck session of Congress and a presidential administration on its way out have chilled the prospects for a deal.
Congressional Democrats and Republicans generally say a new stimulus bill is needed, but they disagree on the scope of it. Some Republicans are opposed to another round of checks directly to most taxpayers, and some don't want Washington to "bail out" state and local governments that had financial struggles before the pandemic.
Today, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the Democrats' approach includes "huge sums of money for state and city governments with no linkage to demonstrated Covid needs" and comes as tax revenues in some states are ahead of where they were at this time in 2019.
"But Democrats still want coronavirus relief for the entire country held hostage over a massive slush fund for their own use," the Kentucky Republican said.
State and local governments have been pushing for more federal help since the northern spring, when Congress and President Donald Trump agreed to a series of measures worth nearly US$3 trillion to deal with the outbreak.
The aid included a big boost, since expired, to weekly unemployment benefits, along with grants and loans for businesses and assistance to state, territorial, local and tribal governments.
States have used the money for testing and contact tracing, assisting businesses, helping residents with utility bills and rent and expanding broadband access for students attending school remotely. But they have not generally been allowed to use it for one of their major needs: replacing declining tax revenue to keep regular government services running.
The needs have become more urgent as the virus rampages across virtually every state. California and Texas each have exceeded one million cases. California Governor Gavin Newsom this week barred indoor restaurant dining and imposed other restrictions.
As intensive care units fill up, some Republican governors once reluctant to impose mask mandates have reversed course, and some cities and states are threatening fines against businesses that violate restrictions on social gatherings.
Biden this week called for Congress to immediately adopt a version of a US$2.4 trillion stimulus bill passed by the House, but not the Senate, in May: "This is about keeping Americans afloat."
The Centre on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that state, local, territorial and tribal government budgets will be short collectively by US$275b to US$415b until June 2022 if they use all their reserve money to help deal with the virus. Moody's Analytics said that for states alone, the shortfall could range from US$196b to US$396b, depending on how bad the virus outbreak gets.