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OpinionColumnistsDan Janison

Public employees have a special stake in Biden's stimulus measure

Jen Psaki, White House press secretary, recently said

Jen Psaki, White House press secretary, recently said the Biden administration consulted states on what aid they need in the coronavirus relief package. Credit: UPI / Bloomberg / Kevin Dietsch

Word spread Tuesday that House Democrats were putting the finishing touches on President Joe Biden's $1.9 trillion coronavirus economic relief package with the intention of voting on it next week. Provisions include billions in aid to small businesses and schools, shoring up unemployment benefits and a new round of $1,400 direct payments to individuals.

Along with this general aid, public employees across the U.S. have a particular interest. Unlike the last coronavirus stimulus measure enacted in late December, the Biden proposal moving forward included $350 billion for the state and local governments that employ them and are sustaining big deficits, largely driven by the pandemic crisis.

Much of the timing here involves blue-state-versus-red-state politics. When Donald Trump was in the White House and Republicans in control of the Senate, GOP objections to "bailing out the blue states" carried the day. Once the elections secured Democrats' power, they could look to direct help for states and cities.

It is hard to quickly tease out exactly how much further the Democratic-crafted legislation will go toward reversing losses of taxpayer-funded jobs than if lawmakers relied on steps toward a comprehensive economic recovery. But it is easy to see why states and localities have been pushing for the assistance.

According to an analysis from The Washington Post, at least 26 states sustained a decline in tax revenue in 2020 and more than 1 in 20 government jobs vanished overall.

In Dayton, Ohio, it was reported that police and fire departments aren’t recruiting new classes this year and big capital projects have been delayed. Ohio, Colorado, Wisconsin, New Hampshire and Hawaii registered the highest public-job losses through 2020.

While the shortfalls have been more serious in some places than others, Biden press secretary Jen Psaki said recently the administration has focused on "what state, local governments and others are telling us they need."

Some states also created programs during the pandemic to avert layoffs in the private sector, announcing special programs such as Connecticut's that offer businesses relief to keep workers on the payroll.

Last summer, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy averted state-employee layoffs by instead carrying out furloughs and putting off an across-the-board raise that had been scheduled.

The upcoming stimulus bill won't be the first federal action during the pandemic to support public employment. The last $900 billion round included $4 billion for New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority, with a provision barring the agency from cutting rank-and-file staff.

Across the U.S., the public sector employs more than 20 million people, or 14.5% of the total workforce. For the Democratic Party, public employees have reason to expect political clout: Labor unions represent 34.8% of public workers nationwide. That's more than five times the percentage in the private sector.