The temptation for politicians to oversimplify is great but can do a disservice when addressing complex needs. A case in point is Gov. Chris Sununu’s harsh criticism of the latest federal COVID relief bill that has now emerged from the House on its way to the Senate — and the state Democratic Party’s response.
The bill calls for $1.9 trillion in additional spending, including direct payments to most taxpayers, enhanced unemployment insurance and housing benefits and vaccine-related spending. It would also send $350 billion in additional aid to state and local governments that have struggled to cope with the double whammy of increased costs and curtailed revenues brought on by the pandemic. The CARES Act enacted last year had injected $340 billion into state and local governments, and New Hampshire received $1.25 billion.
Even so, as calls grew for further federal stimulus, Gov. Sununu made clear Congress should include additional state and local government relief. That never happened last year due to political grandstanding by both parties. Now, with President Biden in the White House and the Democrats (barely) controlling Congress, state and local government aid is back in, and, if it clears the Senate as proposed by the House, the measure will send nearly $1 billion of additional aid to New Hampshire.
Nevertheless, Gov. Sununu has slammed the House bill because its allocation of the state government aid portion would include unemployment as a factor, rather than basing it solely on population, the methodology used in last year’s CARES Act. This, said Sununu in a statement issued after the House vote, is “inherently unfair” to states with lower unemployment and would “subsidize poorly run, cash-strapped states.” He also signed onto a joint statement with 21 other governors calling for allocation to be based only on population and citing a House Budget Republicans analysis that accuses House Democrats of changing the formula to disproportionately benefit states run by “their political allies,” even though they include states with Republican governors, such as Texas and Arizona.
The N.H. Democratic Party responded with a statement that sought to expand Sununu’s call for a change in the allocation formula into complete opposition to every aspect of the entire relief bill. Sununu left himself open to this by stating in a press conference before the bill passed that were he in Congress, he would vote against the bill. Still, the Democrats’ statement is an unwarranted oversimplification because, in context, it was clear he believes the allocation formula needs changing and certain arguably non-COVID-related provisions, such as a minimum wage increase, should be removed.
In one sense, there’s some logic to Sununu’s concern about the allocation formula. According to the House Budget Republicans analysis, New Hampshire stands to receive $233 million less of the state and local government aid than it would if the allocation were based solely on population. But, a Reuters News analysis of the bill shows, New Hampshire would be among the top 20 states for its per capita allocation and would receive more per capita than it did under the CARES Act, which Sununu chose to overlook. Instead, he complained at his press conference that the allocation formula is a “bailout” of the “worst-managed states” for disproportionately benefiting states with higher unemployment than New Hampshire’s.
Absent from this is focus on need, and it’s an oversimplification to say any state with higher unemployment has necessarily been mismanaged, particularly given the wide variations in how the coronavirus has spread through urban and rural areas and how the costs of dealing with the spread can vary. The pandemic and its effects are a disaster. Just as hurricanes, earthquakes and other natural disasters can affect different parts of the country differently, the pandemic observes no state boundaries in its effect, and higher unemployment figures in a state should not be dismissed as a reflection of only bad management. If New Hampshire were hardest hit by a regionwide ice storm or Northeastern flooding, would Sununu argue the state should only get aid proportional to its population?
That said, the Senate should examine the bill’s allocation formula to assure that it does indeed address need as fully as possible.
New Hampshire can be grateful that, relatively speaking, it has weathered the pandemic storm as well as it has, and Gov. Sununu surely deserves credit for that. But it’s entirely reasonable for federal aid to be more weighted toward where that storm has hit hardest, just as it is when a natural disaster hits.