Martha McSally has the solution for Arizona cities that have seen a gaping hole blown in their budgets because of the coronavirus pandemic: Sit tight and hope that the federal government loosens the strings on a too-small pot of money that you can’t access.
What she definitely doesn’t have an appetite for, she told attendees of a virtual town hall hosted last month by the city of Surprise, is giving money directly to most Arizona cities to fill the massive deficits brought on by the economic catastrophe.
“On any (new) funding, I’m just going to be frank with you guys, OK? This is not the time for states and cities – unlike Arizona, unlike Surprise – who have mismanaged their budgets over the course of many decades, for them to use this as an opportunity to see you, as a taxpayer in Arizona, as a cash cow for them,” she said.
Instead, she pointed to the $150 billion that the CARES Act set aside for states and cities and patted herself on the back for a job well done.
“We’ve already given $150 billion in state stabilization money that three cities in Arizona got directly from the federal government – that’s Mesa, Tucson, and Phoenix, that have over 500,000 residents. The rest of the money will flow through the state to the cities,” she said at the April 29 event.
But that money comes with strict rules about how it can be spent, most specifically that it has to be used on coronavirus response efforts – and local governments are barred from using it to fill budget deficits.
And right now, that’s what they need. Surprise Mayor Skip Hall, who moderated the town hall event with McSally, said his suburban city went from a $7.5 million budget surplus in February to an estimated $15 million deficit now.
“We were having a gangbusters year, and then this hit,” he told me Wednesday.
McSally was responding to Hall’s question about whether she agreed with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who said bankruptcy should be an option for states and cities in the wake of the coronavirus economic disaster in lieu of Congress helping them bridge their deficits so they can avoid disruptions in essential services like public safety.
While she was quick to blame “the Left” for wanting to soak Arizona taxpayers to bail out Chicago and New York, one thing she didn’t do was distance herself from McConnell. (Curiously, even McConnell distanced himself from that position two days before McSally’s town hall, saying he would give money to local governments in exchange for liability protections for businesses.)
McSally acknowledged that there were major strings on the $150 billion and said she was working to get them loosened – something she called for formally this week – but she ignored the biggest problem with that aid: It only can be given to cities with more than 500,000 people.
What that means is that Hall and mayors in the state’s other 87 cities and towns not named Phoenix, Tucson and Mesa won’t see checks from the federal government.
Hall said he was a bit taken aback by McSally’s answer that she didn’t support sending meaningful aid for the cities her constituents live in, but opted not to push back on her because, he said, he was happy that a U.S. senator took time to sit down and speak to his community.
“I didn’t want to embarrass her or anything,” he told me.
Tom Belshe, executive director of the League of Arizona Cities and Towns, said the position McSally staked out in the Surprise town hall comes as a bit of a surprise
“She has never said that to us,” he said.
But he’s hopeful that, when he speaks with her on Friday, she’ll recognize that Arizona cities and towns are responsible – and that they are in dire need of help.
“This is not something that we’re crying wolf on. There is real need out there,” Belshe said. “Every city and town is taking a significant loss because of our dependence on sales tax.”
If there’s a silver lining in all this for city leaders who might be disappointed in McSally rejecting their pleas, it’s that her positions are nothing if not flexible, so you can bet that she’ll be singing a new tune soon enough.