The short-term problem for ailing state and local governments is diminished tax revenue from the epidemic. That is precisely the kind of problem that can be mitigated through ordinary fiscal responsibility: Don’t take on debt in good times, carry reserves when possible, diversify revenue streams. State and local governments have long experience riding the revenue roller-coaster. In California, much of the state’s revenue comes from capital-gains taxes, while in Texas much comes from energy, and both of those states maintain rainy-day funds precisely because of their experience with the volatility of their important revenue streams. States should carry larger reserves. It is true that it is easier for Alaska to do this than it is for New York State, because Alaska has all that oil revenue, but New York State lacks oil revenue because of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s fracking ban — not because of a lack of oil.
(What’s your excuse, Pennsylvania?)
If you doubt that the pension issue is central here, consider Illinois’s request for a federal bailout, which proposes $10 billion in pension aid but only $1 billion to help provide health care to poor people. It also seeks $15 billion in unrestricted assistance to the state and $9.6 billion in direct aid for the cities. This proposal was put together by the Democratic state-senate leader in Illinois, Don Harmon, who knows that current and retired employees are 35 times more important to him and his party than are poor people who need health care — and he did the numbers accordingly.