When President Donald Trump directed late Monday that states now pick up some of the tab for the nationwide deployment of the National Guard to respond to the coronavirus, he carved out two big exceptions: Texas and Florida.
While all other states and territories will have to shell out millions to cover 25 percent of their National Guard costs starting later this month, Texas and Florida will be fully covered. The two key states, which voted for Trump in 2016 and are hotly contested this year, are struggling to contain the coronavirus surges. But other states are worse off by several metrics — including total Covid-19 cases and the percentage of people testing positive.
An estimated 25,000 Guard troops are on duty across the country running testing sites, contact tracing positive virus cases, building hospitals and carrying out a host of other logistical tasks, including delivering supplies to nursing homes and food banks.
The decision to fully fund the Guard deployments was hailed by officials in Texas and Florida on Tuesday, but also prompted accusations from others of an ulterior motive.
"With American lives at risk, the president is continuing to manipulate our nation's pandemic response to benefit his own political fortunes," said Noam Lee, the executive director of the Democratic Governors Association. "While the coronavirus doesn't discriminate between 'red' states or 'blue' states, it is disturbingly clear that our president does."
The National Guard Association, which represents tens of thousands of Guard personnel, told POLITICO it received “no explanation” for why Texas and Florida are getting special treatment when they are far from the only states relying heavily on the citizen-soldiers to battle spikes of sickness and death and are similarly under enormous financial strain.
“There are some other states with very high rates and they weren’t included," the advocacy group’s spokesperson John Goheen said. “We’re shrugging our shoulders."
He added that the White House's decision to also extend the deployment of all Guard troops nationwide through Dec. 31 is “bittersweet” because while it allows critical operations such as testing, contact tracing and other work to mitigate to the public health crisis to continue, it also puts more of the burden on states “struggling with tax revenue.”
The White House declined to comment publicly on the funding disparity and referred POLITICO to the Defense Department, which did not respond to multiple requests for comment. The states in question also did not offer an explanation as to why their costs alone will be fully covered.
A senior administration official, responding to POLITICO'S queries by email, declined to address the funding disparity, but called the 25 percent burden for all other states "common sense."
“In order to help states respond to the pandemic, the Federal Government took the unprecedented step to fully fund National Guard deployments," the official said in a statement. "Now, as conditions warrant, it should be common sense that States will resume normal cost sharing.”
But the National Guard Association said that cost sharing for a federal deployment like the coronavirus relief effort is anything but "normal," and they know of no other time states were asked to pick up part of the tab for a mission like this.
Much of the Guard's coronavirus relief work has been carried out under what's known as Title 32, meaning troops are deployed for an emergency — and the the federal government bears the full cost while personnel are eligible for a series of health and retirement benefits. But governors remain in command of the Guard troops in their state.
Under a different status, known as state active duty, states can get reimbursed for part of the cost by FEMA.
Another Trump administration official told POLITICO that the White House Office of Management and Budget, not Trump, made the call to single out Florida and Texas for increased support. OMB also declined to comment.
The National Guard Bureau, which is managing the nationwide deployment, similarly provided no explanation and declined to provide a state-by-state breakdown of how many of the more than 20,000 troops currently on federal status are deployed in which states.
According to the office of Florida governor's Ron DeSantis, some 1,400 National Guard troops were responding to the pandemic as of Tuesday — roughly five percent of the nationwide total.
"The Florida National Guard is an integral component of our state’s COVID-19 response with more than 1,400 guardsmen and women mobilized," Cody McCloud, a DeSantis spokesperson, told POLITICO in a statement. "To date, they have assisted in the testing of nearly 1 million individuals through state-supported drive-thru and walk-up testing sites. The Florida National Guard also remains a key part of our logistics operation, helping to send PPE to health care workers and first responders statewide."
"We thank President Trump for recognizing the Florida National Guard’s importance to these efforts," he added.
Texas declined to provide its Guard totals. But Gov. Greg Abbott, a key ally of the president's, touted the higher funding level for his state's Guard deployment at a press conference Tuesday.
"The president has reauthorized and extended federal funding for the National Guard to continue in service for the remainder of this calendar year at a 100 percent reimbursement rate," Abbott said. "That is a tremendous financial as well as personnel assistance for the response by the state of Texas to Covid-19."
Others say they are puzzled by the special treatment given that dozens of states are in the same boat.
Maj. Gen. Matt Quinn, head of the Montana National Guard, said he’s received no explanation from the administration.
“Florida and Texas are the worst in some regards, that’s not true across the board,” said Quinn, who is also president of the Adjutants General Association of the United States. “You have other hot spots and other states that could certainly use the 100 percent support. Now, the rest of the states who are trying to figure out how to cover the 25 percent will be left scrambling.”
Indeed, while Texas and Florida do have the highest number of current hospitalizations, by some metrics they are in better shape than other states.
California has more total cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control. As for cases per 100,000 people, Louisiana and Arizona have more than Florida, while Texas ranks 17th. Mississippi and Alabama have a higher percentage of people testing positive than in Florida, while Texas is the 9th highest.
Meanwhile, other states are also in worse financial shape. Tax revenues in Texas are down by nearly a third compared to last year, forcing the state to weigh tough budget cuts. Florida is down 26 percent and has been hit particularly hard by a drop off in tourism. The state is now starting down a more than $2 billion shortfall. But other states are faring worse. Tax revenues are down nearly 45 percent in California and more than 50 percent in Oregon, for example.
The analysis by the Urban Institute was based on states' tax revenue between March and May of this year, compared to the same period last year.
The National Conference of State Legislatures estimates that the cost of the deployment is as much as $9 million per month for every 1,000 troops.
The presidential directives, issued Monday night, extended the deployment of all Guard members nationwide until Dec. 31 — marking the National Guard’s longest active-duty mission for a domestic national emergency.
The extension came after months of lobbying from governors and lawmakers, who argued the longer timeline, matched by federal support, is needed as cases, hospitalizations and deaths spike in much of the country. Now, state leaders and lawmakers say they're thankful for the extension but critical of the decision to fully fund just two states.
"This isn’t just a Texas or a Florida problem, it’s an American problem," Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), told POLITICO in a statement Tuesday. "That’s why I’ve continued to push for extensions on Title 32 authorization—despite the administration’s previous efforts to shortchange our servicemembers—and urge Trump to provide full coverage for all of our National Guard servicemembers who are responding to this crisis.”
"Our states still need as much help as the federal government can give," she added.
Lara Seligman and Daniel Lippman contributed to this report.