Financially devastated by the fight against coronavirus, cities and counties across Minnesota and the nation are furiously lobbying Congress for more money to head off deep cuts to basic services.
“This pandemic is like nothing we’ve ever seen in our lifetime,” said Irma Esparza Diggs, director of federal advocacy for the National League of Cities. “We have seen relationships being established out of necessity to work together. We have seen small-town mayors … reaching out to their senators in a way that they haven’t before.”
Nationally, counties expect to quickly lose $114 billion in revenue as a result of the pandemic, and cities expect to lose $134 billion, according to the National Association of Counties and National League of Cities.
Federal aid so far has focused on new coronavirus-related expenses rather than lost income. Local government leaders argue that if they don’t get money to help with the revenue losses, they will have to lay off workers or slash basic services.
The mobilization of local governments to pressure Washington for help is unlike any other in recent memory, according to lobbyists representing cities and counties. As the flurry of local calls and letters stream in, Congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle have signaled some openness to another round of aid but tied the issue to partisan priorities.
Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey said he has been in regular contact with the state’s federal delegation to ask for money to help offset the loss of up to $200 million in tax revenue.
“We are proud to do the work of providing core city services and helping out our most vulnerable population through a pandemic,” Frey said. “We also need resources to make it happen.”
Frey and the Minneapolis City Council recently agreed to spend an additional $50,000 for firm Lockridge Grindal Nauen to lobby on behalf of the city, citing in part the “increased federal policies and funding to respond to the pandemic.”
In St. Paul, city officials are leaning on lobbyists who were hired before the pandemic, while also working directly with Minnesota’s delegation in Washington to explain how the pandemic has changed the demand for city services.
“I think it would potentially be easy for someone who doesn’t understand or isn’t in the nitty-gritty to say let’s not backfill what cities do, and the reality is that would have really dramatic, harmful impacts on the people that we serve,” Deputy Mayor Jaime Tincher said.
Smaller Minnesota cities are also asking federal lawmakers for aid. Red Wing Mayor Sean Dowse said his community has been working with the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative to make the case.
“We’re trying to pull all the levers we can to influence the passage because getting the funds into the states and municipalities is really important … to getting economies through the impact of COVID,” he said.
But he and Virginia, Minn., Mayor Larry Cuffe Jr. doubt they have much influence over what happens in Washington.
“We don’t have much say, obviously,” Cuffe said. “I doubt if we have any, frankly, at the federal level.”
When Congress passed the previous Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, it gave money directly only to local governments with a population of 500,000 or more. That meant that Hennepin and Ramsey counties were the only local governments in Minnesota to get direct funding. And the money could be used only to cover new expenses arising from the pandemic, not shore up budget shortfalls.
Other communities in Minnesota are waiting for the state to disburse $667 million it received from the CARES Act. That process has been mired at the State Capitol, and local officials haven’t yet been able to access it.
Several of Minnesota’s Republican congressmen said they are disappointed that money has not yet been released to local governments, and they called on Gov. Tim Walz to do so now.
“Congress cannot appropriately assess additional funding needs until this critical funding is allocated equitably to towns, cities, and townships across the state,” U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber said in a statement.
The Democratic-led U.S. House of Representatives passed a $3.3 trillion HEROES Act on May 15, which included more than $1 trillion for state and local governments, as well as various party priorities. It passed the House on a largely party-line vote and was quickly rejected by Republican leadership in the Senate.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called it a “liberal wish list.” But in recent weeks he has not taken as hard a line on the issue as he did last month, when he suggested states could use “the bankruptcy route” to handle financial challenges instead of having the federal government borrow more money to support them.
McConnell, R-Ky., told Fox News on Thursday that Congress may put together another aid package, but he wants to wait and see how the previous money is working first. He and other Republicans have also started to tie aid discussions to their push for liability waivers, to protect businesses from lawsuits related to the coronavirus.
National organizations representing cities and counties are closely watching another bill recently introduced by U.S. Sens. Bill Cassidy, R-La., and Bob Menendez, D-N.J. Dubbed the SMART Act, it includes $500 billion to help states, local and tribal governments across the country.
Minnesota’s U.S. senators, Democrats Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith, both said they support flexible aid for local governments.
“This is about funding of the front-line workers, the basic services citizens expect their governments to provide for them — police, fire and emergency response,” Smith said. “I believe that there is bipartisan understanding of this in Congress, we just need to get it done and push to get it included in the next package.”
Smith said she supports the HEROES Act that passed the House but would also support the SMART Act. The Senate has recessed for 10 days, and Smith said she knows some colleagues on both sides of the aisle are unhappy about doing so when more relief is needed.
While the House and Senate are starting to discuss another round of funding, Democratic Rep. Betty McCollum said she is hearing from mayors and council members across her district that aid “couldn’t happen fast enough.”
“We have how many millions of Americans infected with this virus?” McCollum said. “This is not going away anytime soon ... Whether it’s Willernie or St. Paul or Oakdale or Shoreview, they all are having to absorb costs of COVID.”
Staff writer Emma Nelson contributed to this report.