Cities Turn to Washington to Close Pandemic Budget Gaps

California Highway Patrol officers guarded the State Capitol in Sacramento on Inauguration Day.

ImageCalifornia Highway Patrol officers guarded the State Capitol in Sacramento on Inauguration Day.
Credit…Philip Cheung for The New York Times

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Good morning.

After months of begging and cajoling, California’s cities are poised to get billions of dollars from Washington to help them cope with falling tax revenues and the ongoing costs of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Senate is expected to begin debate Thursday on the $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill, which has already passed the House. State and local governments are slated to get about $350 billion of those funds, with about $42 billion headed to California.

California cities would get around $8 billion, and counties would get about the same, according to a spreadsheet released with the House version of the bill.

“It will go a long way toward positioning our cities for being a strong partner in recovery,” said Carolyn Coleman, executive director of the League of California Cities.

Republicans have objected to the money directed at state and local governments, arguing that it amounts to an unnecessary bailout. And researchers say that many states have brought in surprisingly high tax revenue despite the pandemic.


That’s true in California, where the state projects a budget surplus of $15 billion, in large part because of income taxes on the wages and capital gains of top earners, who have been able to keep working from home and have cashed in on the booming stock market.

For cities, it has been a gloomier story.

Sales tax revenue plunged as virus restrictions shut down restaurants and retailers. In tourist spots like Anaheim, home to Disneyland, and Napa Valley, the heart of wine country, hotel taxes evaporated along with the visitors. At the same time, cities have had to spend more on housing and feeding people left homeless and hungry by the virus and its economic ripples.

“They are needing to spend more and not less,” said Mark Baldassare, chief executive of the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonpartisan research organization.

And unlike the federal government, which can spend more than it takes in, cities must balance their budgets. When revenue falls, government services and employment must drop, too. Ms. Coleman said that about 35,000 public-sector employees in California had lost their jobs since the pandemic started.

Congress sent billions to California cities last spring as part of the first round of coronavirus relief, but the money was restricted to pandemic-related expenses. The proposed new funding would be much larger and would come with fewer strings attached.

California mayors view the money as a lifeline that would erase budget deficits and provide seed capital for rebuilding a battered economy.

For example, the city of Los Angeles would get $1.35 billion, wiping out the current $750 million budget deficit and then some. In San Francisco, the city would get $465 million, and the county would get an additional $171 million.

Sam Liccardo, the mayor of San Jose, said the money would come at an opportune time. The city, which anchors one end of Silicon Valley, is projecting a budget deficit of about $48 million in the current fiscal year, assuming widespread vaccination and a steady reopening of the economy.

Mr. Liccardo said San Jose has built new housing for the homeless, provided rent assistance and millions of free meals, and extended free broadband internet access to more than 100,000 low-income residents so far during the pandemic.

The federal funds would help expand those efforts — and give the city a cushion against what might be another phase of the downturn. So far, property tax revenue has held up, but a glut of empty office space is likely to shrink the tax base over the next couple of years.

“The sky is not falling but the clouds are darkening,” Mr. Liccardo said.

[See how much your state, city or county would get from the stimulus bill in this spreadsheet from the House.]


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Credit…Philip Cheung for The New York Times
  • California will direct 40 percent of new vaccines to low-income communities. The strategy is an effort to make the vaccine rollout more equitable and reduce the number of counties considered most at risk, as well as speed California’s ability to reopen, officials said. [The New York Times]

  • This winter’s surge in Covid infections in Los Angeles County killed Black and Latino residents at two to three times the rate of white Angelenos. The New York Times Magazine followed the lives — and deaths — of many of those who got infected in what one official called “the worst disaster our county has experienced for decades.” [The New York Times]

  • The Senate Finance Committee deadlocked 14-14 on Wednesday on whether to confirm Xavier Becerra as President Biden’s secretary of health and human services. The nomination of Mr. Becerra, California’s attorney general, now goes to Senator Chuck Schumer, the majority leader, and Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, either of whom can bring the nomination to the Senate floor. [Reuters]

  • Officials say the S.U.V. involved in the border crash on Tuesday that killed 13 migrants apparently entered the United States from Mexico through a breach in the border wall. [The New York Times]

  • Britney Spears’s father “would love nothing more than to see Britney not need a conservatorship,” his lawyer told CNN. A recent New York Times documentary has renewed interest in the court-sanctioned rules that the pop singer has lived under since 2008. [The New York Times]

  • Governor Gavin Newsom said he expected stadiums to be open by the time Major League Baseball begins its season on April 1. “We’re working on the final details,” Mr. Newsom said on Wednesday in Long Beach. [The Los Angeles Times]

  • Despite all the talk of Bay Area residents fleeing to places like Texas and Florida, Postal Service data suggests that very few people actually moved out of state last year. Most of the people filing address changes stayed within the Bay Area or moved to another part of the state. [The San Francisco Chronicle]

  • More than half of the nearly $4 million that organizers have raised so far in their effort to recall Governor Newsom has come from two dozen contributors — wealthy individuals, deep-pocketed companies and Republican groups. [The San Francisco Chronicle]

  • Thousands of people who visited a mass vaccination site at the Oakland Coliseum received the wrong vaccine dosages this week, according to two medical workers who worked there. [KTVU]


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Credit…Ryan Jenq for The New York Times

Our California restaurant critic, Tejal Rao, writes about her quest to regain her sense of smell after losing it because of Covid-19.

“After my sense of smell disappeared, I became depressed and disoriented as all of the foods I loved became unrecognizable, turning into a series of unappealing textures,” she writes.

She turned to smell training as a potential remedy. “For three weeks, I sniffed things constantly, things I loved, but couldn’t pick up anything at all. When I smelled something for the first time again, it was so unpleasant, it made me gag: the stomach-churning reek of spoiled milk.”

It was just the beginning of a long journey.


California Today goes live at 6:30 a.m. Pacific time weekdays. Tell us what you want to see: [email protected]. Were you forwarded this email? Sign up for California Today here and read every edition online here.

Vindu Goel has lived in California for about half his life, including stints in San Diego, Silicon Valley, San Francisco, and now, Oakland. He is currently an emerging platforms editor on the Audience team.

California Today is edited by Julie Bloom, who grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from U.C. Berkeley.

(This article is part of the

Good morning.

After months of begging and cajoling, California’s cities are poised to get billions of dollars from Washington to help them cope with falling tax revenues and the ongoing costs of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Senate is expected to begin debate Thursday on the $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill, which has already passed the House. State and local governments are slated to get about $350 billion of those funds, with about $42 billion headed to California.

California cities would get around $8 billion, and counties would get about the same, according to a spreadsheet released with the House version of the bill.

“They are needing to spend more and not less,” said Mark Baldassare, chief executive of the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonpartisan research organization.

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