Guest Columnist

Don't bail out failed state policies

The trillion-dollar plan to bail out state governments in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic is what passes for thinking big in Washington. In Iowa, we’d call it something else.

Lawmakers are using this crisis to jockey for handouts to pay for their past mistakes.

We’re all familiar with the story of the fiddling grasshopper and the thrifty ant. On that scale, Iowa is on the ant end of things. Iowa is in the middle of the pack among states in terms of per capita spending, ranks in the top one-third for lowest state debt burden, and our reserve and rainy day funds are in good shape.

Some states have been even more prudent. Others have been far less. And in many other states, decades of bad policymaking left them less prepared to meet the current crisis, so they want the federal government to bail them out. Lots of bad ideas are floating around. Indeed, one member of the Iowa delegation in the U.S. House has introduced her own bailout bill.

But Washington is already providing almost $2 trillion in assistance to state governments this year, more than half of that specifically in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Iowa has been more fiscally responsible than some of our neighbors. But it’s not about pitting one state against another. It’s about what’s right and wrong.

And it’s just wrong to demand that taxpayers across the country bail out the failed policies of irresponsible politicians.

In a sense, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was right when she said it was time to “think big” — just not quite in the way she intended. Thinking big should mean rejecting business-as usual, top-down solutions. It should mean getting rid of the barriers that stand in the way of economic prosperity, not bankrupting future generations to paper over structural problems that existed long before this crisis began.

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Instead of yet another bailout of bad policy decisions, Congress should reject state wish lists and prioritize reforms that protect public health while clearing the way for people to get back to work and businesses to get up and running.

Bailing out wasteful state governments would do the opposite. It would undermine our ability to respond effectively to this crisis and leave us less prepared to respond to the next one by fueling more of the same kind of profligate legislative behavior that existed before COVID-19 ever darkened our door.

A prime example lives next door.

Illinois is asking for $40 billion — but not to pay for pandemic response. Nearly all that money would be spent to bail out bad spending decisions policymakers in Springfield have been making for decades, including the state’s failing pension system.

They’re deploying the shameful tactic of using teachers, police and firefighters as pawns to be exploited; bargaining chips in a bid for massive federal bailouts. States should honor their obligations to these heroes of pandemic response by setting better priorities with their own funds and the federal aid they have already received.

Instead of falling into the usual trap of “think big” Washington, let’s think smart instead.

We should be helping the people who are hurting, not bailing out politicians for years of irresponsible decisions that had nothing to do with confronting the pandemic.

Drew Klein is state director of Americans for Prosperity-Iowa.

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