Business & Lobbying

Red-state cities get cool reception from GOP on relief aid

Cities from red states and 2020 battlegrounds face a daunting task as they try to convince congressional Republicans that they should receive funding in the next coronavirus relief package. 

Municipalities were ecstatic to see House Democrats included $915 billion for states and localities in their $3 trillion rescue bill that passed Friday night. But the bigger challenge will be in the Senate, where Republicans have been far less supportive of aid for states, let alone cities.

Still, lobbyists representing cities from Republican-led states and swing states that President Trump won in 2016 are hoping to make their case and find an audience with GOP lawmakers and the White House.

Lobbying registrations for cities have jumped since the pandemic took hold in the U.S.

Johnson City, Tenn., recently hired Bridge Public Affairs, while Annapolis, Md., went with Alignment Government Strategies. Terre Haute, Ind., retained Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP.

Cities, states and localities normally hire federal lobbyists to help secure funding for infrastructure projects, but since the pandemic hit, the focus has been almost exclusively on obtaining coronavirus relief funds.

The firm Becker & Poliakoff has 10 Florida cities among its clients, including the City of Coral Gables. Omar Franco, former chief of staff to Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), is on the account.

He said that nowadays, all of the firm’s work for cities relates to the coronavirus. 

“People forget cities are like businesses like everything else and they need to figure out what’s going on with workers’ compensation, furloughing,” Franco said. “The other thing is what’s going on for their small businesses. These mom-and-pop shops go to the federal website and don’t know how to navigate it, so they feel much better going to their city and local officials.”

But pressing congressional Republicans to provide government aid to cities is an uphill battle, even when the lawmaker is from the same state.

Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) has been opposed to Washington coming to the rescue to help state and local governments with lost revenue.

He argues Florida is well-positioned to handle the crisis without a bailout. His office noted that state and local governments received aid from the $2.2 trillion CARES Act in late March, and “Congress has done plenty to help.”

The $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act allowed for cities with a population of 500,000 or more to access funds; smaller cities had to apply for funding through the county or state. 

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has pushed back on providing funding for local governments that he says failed to manage their finances, but he supports aid for essential services.

“There are two separate things here. Number one is money you owe, liabilities you have because of mismanagement and bad decisions. We should not be bailing that out,” Rubio said in a statement. “And then there is a sort of basic baseline of revenue that you need to pay firefighters, garbage pickup people, the sanitation department, and your building and code division, and your…police officers. There’s a baseline revenue there that we can’t allow to decline.”

Purchasing personal protective equipment (PPE) for police officers was one of the first emergency actions cities had to take when the coronavirus hit. Many are still faced with providing PPE for essential workers. 

Franco said Rubio’s stance is representative of the GOP position on Capitol Hill.

“As long as it’s COVID-related activities, I think they’re fine. What nobody wants to see on the GOP side… is these cities using it for pre-COVID stuff,” he said. 

But some of the issues facing cities before the coronavirus have exacerbated the effects of the pandemic, said Rodney Emery, who worked at the Commerce Department during the Obama administration.

“It’s very similar to the preexisting challenges these cities faced. The existing challenges these cities have grappled with are further exposed or vulnerabilities are further heightened,” said Emery, who works for the lobbying firm Mercury, which was recently hired by Montgomery, Ala.

Cities in swing states are also putting pressure on Congress.

Detroit, which received $117 million from the CARES Act, hired Squire Patton Boggs to secure more assistance. Rodney Slater, former Transportation secretary under President Clinton, is working on the account. 

“As we think about the CARES Act and the various iterations of measures that are coming before the Congress, this next one is one that should be quite significant for states and locales,” Slater told Crain’s in an interview this week. “We’re hopeful that that will bode well for Detroit.”

Trump won Michigan in 2016 by less than half a percentage point.

Republicans aren’t slamming the door on funding for cities, though. Many have pushed back on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) suggestion that some states should go bankrupt.

Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) has proposed a $500 billion fund to help state and local governments. He predicted more Republicans will back this plan when they become more aware of growing financial hardships in their home states.

Cities, however, are already aware of those fiscal challenges.

The National League of Cities, which advocates for over 19,000 cities, towns and villages, recently launched a campaign calling for $500 billion in direct federal aid over the next two years. 

“Cities aren’t asking for a federal bailout. This is a partnership during a time of crisis to help America bounce back,” said Joe Buscaino, the group’s president.

Tags Bill Cassidy city budgets Coronavirus Donald Trump Lobbying Marco Rubio Mario Diaz-Balart Mitch McConnell Pandemic
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