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Bill Straub: Mitch McConnell, known for putting party before country, does it again over ‘blue state bailouts’

In 1975, facing an excruciating financial crisis, the City of New York under Democratic Mayor Abraham Beame, looking bankruptcy squarely in the eye, went hat-in-hand to President Gerald Ford seeking some sort of bail-out to help clear the debt.

Ford, a Republican, told Beame and the five boroughs to take a hike, leading the New York Daily News to print one of the most renowned front-page headlines in journalism history: Ford To City: Drop Dead.
NYC eventually disposed of its fiscal problems without benefit of bankruptcy. Ford wasn’t so lucky. He lost his bid for re-election to former President Jimmy Carter in 1976 and blamed that headline, at least in part, for his downfall.

A similar scenario can currently be viewed under different circumstances in DC. Several states, New York among them, are facing agonizing financial peril because of the COVID-19 virus and are turning to the federal government for help.

The NKyTribune’s Washington columnist Bill Straub served 11 years as the Frankfort Bureau chief for The Kentucky Post. He also is the former White House/political correspondent for Scripps Howard News Service. A member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, he currently resides in Silver Spring, Maryland, and writes frequently about the federal government and politics. Email him at williamgstraub@gmail.com

Senate Republican Leader Mitch “Root-‘n-Branch’’ McConnell at first told them to drop dead, particularly those states run by Democrats, at a time when both parties are expected to come together for the common good.

McConnell, of Louisville, has since done a whole lot of backin’-and-fillin’, apparently recalling Ford’s fate, saying essentially, “Yeah, we might throw a few coins your way, but it’ll cost you in the end.”

So, in this time of crisis, the man is known far and wide for always – always – placing party before country, demands his pound of flesh before providing a helping hand to states that find themselves in desperate straits through no fault of their own with few ways out.

It all started late last week when McConnell indicated he didn’t relish the idea of providing further financial assistance to states, hinting that “blue state bailouts’’ were not on the agenda and it might instead be a good idea to permit those suffering from the consequences of COVID-19 to seek a way to declare bankruptcy, even though federal law currently prohibits same.

“We’re not interested in solving their pension problems for them, we’re not interested in rescuing them from bad decisions they’ve made in the past,” McConnell told Bill Hemmer of Fox News. “We’re not going to let them take advantage of this pandemic to solve a lot of problems that they created for themselves, and bad decisions they made in the past.”

Ol’ Root-‘n-Branch then ventured further into the muck, telling right-wing radio show host Hugh Hewitt, “My guess is, their first choice would be for the federal government to borrow money from future generations to send it down to them now so they don’t have to do that. That’s not something I’m going to be in favor of.”

Reaction was swift and cutting. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo proved particularly adept, slamming poor Mitch with a string of remarks so pointed that it could be considered piling on were it not for the fact that it was all so delicious.

Cuomo started by characterizing McConnell’s bankruptcy idea as “one of the really dumb ideas of all time,” noting that it would result in “a collapse of this national economy.”

“How do you not fund police and fire and teachers and schools in the midst of this crisis?” Cuomo asked. “When you don’t fund the state then the state can’t fund those services.”

“How ugly a thought,” Cuomo said. “I mean, just think of what he’s saying: People died, 15,000 people died in New York, but they were predominantly Democrats, so why should we help them?”

Cuomo wasn’t alone in his assessment. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican and co-chairman of the National Governors Association, called McConnell’s remarks “complete nonsense.”

President Donald J. Trump, aka President Extremely Stable Genius, aka President Great and Unmatched Wisdom, tossed in his inflated two cents, taking to Twitter to declare “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? I am open to discussing anything, but just asking?”

But the Trumpster, as usual, was late to the party, and given his response, it’s likely McConnell would have borrowed a line from Jed Clampett when he told his nephew, Jethro Bodine, “Don’t help me, boy,” in order to quiet him down.

By the time Trump weighed in McConnell was already in the middle of the political equivalent of pulling a U-ey at Spaghetti Junction at rush hour – at least back in the days a few weeks ago when Louisville experienced a rush hour. It seems Mitch is now invoking the reliable, old canard that his remarks on bankruptcy constituted “a classic case of taking things out of context,” a claim that is always a politician’s last gambit when he’s found with his trousers around his ankles.

At any rate, our boy Mitch is acknowledging that maybe providing states with assistance for a crisis not of their own making might be in the cards but the states have to play ball. His price is a minor league version of tort reform – assuring businesses that reopen aren’t held liable for workers or customers who contract the disease as a result of their services and patronage.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-CA, and Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer of New York have already said McConnell can go suck an egg. The president (oh good lord) jumped in to say sanctuary cities would have to forfeit that status before they become eligible to receive any dough – and what coronavirus has to do with protecting undocumented residents is probably best left unexplored.

McConnell, who fancies himself a strategic genius to rival Napoleon, made a rookie mistake dissing states operated by Democrats at a time when everyone is obliged to be pulling in the same direction.

It was baloney on so many levels. Any financial assistance sought by the state would naturally come as a result of the pandemic. All 50 states, with the exclusion of Vermont, have either a constitutional provision or state law requiring a balanced budget. Now states play all sorts of games arriving at that goal – having covered the Kentucky General Assembly for better than a decade I can tell you some odd calculations go into determining what constitutes balanced. But those spending plans generally are set by this time and none of the states have asked for any federal assistance to deal with issues like pensions.

And it’s true some states aren’t particularly well run but it has nothing to do with blue or red. Illinois had a giant problem with a legislature controlled by Democrats and a Republican governor, Bruce Rauner, who simply couldn’t get along. Rauner was ousted in 2018. The new governor, a Democrat, J.B. Pritzker, signed a $40 billion balanced budget last year, paving the way for less vitriolic days.

The problem isn’t limited to states run by Democrats. Mississippi is a mess, particularly in the area of corrections where 30 inmates have died in custody since Dec. 29. Magnolia State prisons have been consistently underfunded and understaffed.

So McConnell’s bail-out idea was bogus from the get-go. He was further humiliated when Cuomo noted, accurately, that his state contributes more annually to the federal government than it receives in return. Kentucky, on the other hand, deposits less in federal coffers than it receives.

Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York, so-called blue states all, pay millions more in federal taxes than their state receives back in federal funding. Kentucky, meanwhile, received $148 billion more from the federal government than the Bluegrass State sent to Washington for the four federal fiscal years that ended Sept. 30, 2018.

Technically, the Bluegrass ranks third on what has been undiplomatically referred to as the moocher list. But the other two states – Maryland and Virginia – abut Washington DC and are therefore home to numerous federal facilities that naturally receive funding.

Kentucky, it should be noted, receives plenty of federal aid because it is home to several military facilities – including Ft. Campbell in Christian County. But even taking that into account, the Commonwealth withdraws more from the federal ATM than it ever deposits in the account.

That left ol’ Mitch with the question who really gets the bail-out. It also left him with egg on his face.
McConnell’s amorality, edging sometimes toward immorality, is all too often mistaken on both the state and national level for political genius. His mishandling here proves that conclusively.

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