Last week, Pennsylvania Governor Wolf, enraged that a large number of counties in his state had the audacity to challenge his coronavirus lockdown edicts, attacked his political opponents calling – them “cowards” who were deserting in the middle of battle. He then went on to threaten the counties that were refusing to continue to comply with his orders, saying that they would suffer the consequences.
Specifically, the Governor warned counties announcing they would no longer comply with his orders that they would not qualify for federal stimulus discretionary funds.
“To those politicians who decide to cave in to this coronavirus, they need to realize the consequences of their cowardly act. The funding we have put aside to help with fighting this crisis will go to the folks who are doing their part. And that includes our CARES ACT funding that will be used to support counties that are following the orders to prevent the spread,”
Here’s the thing. The CARES ACT is a piece of legislation passed by the Congress of the United States. The funding that Wolf is referring to is funding provided by Congress to State, Local and Tribal governments struggling to deal with the COVID-19 outbreak. The language of the statute provides that the U.S. Treasury will use U.S. Census Bureau data to decide how much money each state or locality will receive.
The statute doesn’t say anything about state Governors having the authority to punish political opponents by withholding funds. In fact, it specifically talks about the capacity of local jurisdictions to request funds directly from the Treasury if they so choose.
In short, this is not Governor Wolf’s money. It is money provided by the taxpayers of the United States of America for use in combatting the COVID-19 outbreak. This is not a slush fund at the disposal of a vindictive Governor that he can apportion as he sees fit based on political considerations. The U.S. Government did not hand Governor Wolf a stack of cash with which he can play political games. It gave the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania funds with which to help its citizens in a time of need.
This is not a technicality. This is a case of a state official misusing federal dollars for his own partisan political advantage. We call this corruption. It should be regarded as such by the federal government. To what extent Wolf intends to make good on his threat to redirect federal dollars to serve his own interests remains unclear. What is crystal clear, though, is that he has made the threat and done nothing to walk it back.
The federal government ought not simply sit back, hope for the best, and wait to see what happens. All over Pennsylvania right now local officials are making decisions about how best to stand up to this governor with the threat of losing critical funding hanging over their heads.
The federal authorities administering the CARES funding should step in immediately, hold up any further payments to the state of Pennsylvania, and conduct a full and fair investigation of how this funding is being used and apportioned. Only when, and if, that inquiry demonstrates that Governor Wolf is not abusing his authority should any further funding be provided.
U.S. Senator Pat Toomey, R-Pa., hit the nail on the head when he responded to Governor Wolf’s threat. “It is wrong for Gov. Wolf to withhold federal taxpayer funds from the CARES Act in an attempt to coerce compliance with his increasingly misguided lockdown policy,” he said in a statement. “The CARES Act does not authorize this behavior.”
Lancaster County Commissioner Josh Parson echoed the same sentiment in responding to Wolf. “Threatening to withhold federal CARES Act money, meant to fight the virus, from counties is disturbing. It should shock the conscience of every Pennsylvanian.”
The Governor may think he is a monarch. He is not. He may think he can choose to do whatever he pleases with taxpayer funds. He cannot.
It’s our money.