Gov. Whitmer talked states’ needs from Trump and budget crises in a roundtable with Joe Biden, other governors and also a couple geese.
MICHIGAN — The Biden campaign put together a roundtable of governors Thursday for a live stream about the coronavirus, including Michigan’s Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
Whitmer and Biden were joined by Governors Phil Murphy (D-New Jersey) and Ned Lamont (D-Connecticut) for the birthday chat. Also by geese. Because geese will show up with or without social distancing orders.
Whitmer has been a regional leader on the coronavirus, The ‘Gander has noted, and is notably on Biden’s short list for a running mate as he prepares for November. She talked about Michigan’s challenges, approaches and triumphs over the first two months of the virus in her state and articulated some lessons Michiganders can take away from the novel coronavirus pandemic.
The ‘Gander has pulled out a few of the highlights of the 45-minute live stream.
State and Local Budgets Crying for Help
Gov. Whitmer took a personal pay cut before issuing temporary layoffs to state employees. But those layoffs had to come. She said Michigan is expecting billions of dollars in shortfalls in the current year, and even worse in the coming year.
“It’s the essential workforce that’s still working,” Whitmer said “The biggest parts of our budgets are, of course, public health, public safety and public education. All of which are absolutely critical in a global pandemic.”
The forecast for what is coming in terms of state budgets is very grim. Not only has the pandemic massively ramped up state’s expenses so far, but bringing back education in the fall will likely need smaller class sizes and more robust facility cleaning and maintenance which will explode school budgets. And next year, state tax revenue will be hobbled by the record levels of unemployment caused by the virus.
“This isn’t some math exercise. This is about people,” Biden said. “It’s about making sure you don’t have to cut firefighters, teachers, police officers, critical public health programs or stop work on roads and bridges.”
And local governments are no less strapped for cash.
Barron’s argues that the needs of local governments are often unglamorous maintenance costs of the world we live in. Cities often bear the burdens of emergency services and municipal infrastructure like most roads or sewer and water lines. The Flint Water Crisis, Brookings notes, is a great example of that infrastructure falling to neglect.
The Public Health Corps
“Until there’s a vaccine or a cure, the best tool we have aside from social distancing which we know we can’t do forever is testing,” said Whitmer. “We’re able to execute the test, we’ve got the tracing capabilities to follow up where we’ve got positives. What we don’t have are some of the basic supplies.”
It took over a month for Michigan to have the tests it needed just to handle likely cases. Two months in, Michigan was still falling short of its daily testing goal of 15,000. Only now is the state getting on track to hit its testing targets. Whitmer said that such a goal was needed to move forward with containing and managing the pandemic.
“It’s an exaggeration to say [we’ve been] a little slow off the mark; we’ve been way, way off the mark,” Biden said. “If and when we get a vaccine, we’re going to need literally billions of those shots. We’re gonna need to be able to have it available both here in the United States, rural as well as suburban as well as inner city, but we’re also going to need it internationally.”
To that end, Biden posed the idea of a public health corps. That corps would focus on testing and tracing the virus. And, when a vaccine is eventually developed, there would need to be a system to rapidly and massively deploy the vaccine at a national and global scale. He also called for a need to fund producing that eventual vaccine at scale to meet that herculean demand.
He also said that following a military model, there should be a supply officer in charge of handling the flow of things like testing swabs and reagents, masks, ventilators and other tools needed to fight a pandemic.
The Need for a Competent Federal Government
“These states are full of good people who just simply want government to work,” said Whitmer.
In the void left behind by the federal government, individual regions have formed their own micro-federal governments. Whitmer assembled a swath of Midwestern states into a coalition for the purposes of setting reopening standards, and Governors Lamont and Murphy are in a similar coalition in the Northeast.
Biden though saw the virus as exposing many problems America had been long-ignoring, like the racial disparities mentioned earlier in the roundtable. He also cited how rural areas like Michigan’s Upper Peninsula are having trouble with things like telecommuting or online education because those communities don’t have access to broadband internet.
“My problem is I’m a congenital optimist,” said Biden. “All of this is sort of being stripped bare. People are beginning to see and understand how things work and how they don’t work and why it’s time to step up.”
Biden contrasted this kind of thing with Trump’s refusal to participate in global efforts to find treatments for the virus while Whitmer pointed out that the federal government’s supplies to Michigan weren’t what the state needed. Different coronavirus testing kits have different needed swabs, but Michigan only received one type of those swabs, rendering the rest of its testing kits useless.
Biden hoped that coming out of survival and into recovery, the American economy could create millions of jobs addressing the issues laid clear by this trying time.
Essential Workers, Not Low Wage Workers
Biden and the panel pointed out that many low-wage or hourly workers are the workers we now are calling essential. That, they hoped, would encourage a change in perspective about the value of their work.
“People are talking about how they didn’t realize that it was somebody making seven bucks an hour that had their back, that made sure they still had food.” Biden said. “The person driving that delivery truck, the postman, the person who is in fact the first responder, who is the local fire department.”
In fact, many of the people working through the pandemic in person are low-wage workers. Amazon warehouse workers, McDonald’s employees, Walmart stockers and many others make minimum wage and all have been working through the pandemic.
There’s an argument that this is the result of those jobs being able to be filled by a wide swath of potential workers, but that doesn’t ring persuasive to the Atlantic, The paper countered that a large force keeping wages low despite rising productivity is a combination of two flaws in
America’s economic system, a weak environment for unions to collectively bargain, and a great consolidation of the corporations controlling the available places to work.
“These are the people who are the hourly workers, who in fact can’t stay home,” Biden said. “They’re the ones risking their lives, and they’re the ones losing their lives.”
Whitmer mentioned Futures for Frontliners, a program she described as the GI bill for essential workers to help Michiganders who have served in this time have the chance to pursue an education.
Disparities in Coronavirus
That essential workforce is predominantly people of color, Whitmer said.
That creates an implied risk to the black community as the state is pressured to reopen that adds an uncomfortable racial subtext (and occasionally plain text ) to the protests in Lansing to end the coronavirus protections that have slowed Michigan’s economy. And it isn’t like Michigan’s Black population isn’t already suffering.
While Black Michiganders only make up 14% of the state, they make up nearly 40% of the state’s infected population. Detroit, a cornerstone of America’s black identity, is one of the hardest-hit places in the country and as The ‘Gander reports more than one in ten Detroiters die if they contract COVID-19.
“The virus is just simply holding up a mirror to our country, to the disparate outcomes for people of color in America generally and reminding us of these deep inequities” said Whitmer. “We’ve been focused on attacking implicit bias and expanding healthcare, but we know that there is a lot more to learn in this moment.”
To that end, Michigan established a task force helmed by Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist to assess the disparities black communities are facing from the coronavirus. Biden praised the effort.
“This whole crisis has sort of taken the blinders off of most people, the people who weren’t necessarily prejudiced but just didn’t focus.”” said Biden. “We should be keeping very detailed records about how and who and where this virus is striking.”
At least in one vulnerable community, as The ‘Gander reported, we lack basically any data.