Column: Senate GOP COVID-19 relief plan is light on ‘relief,’ low on heroics

U.S. Capitol | Image by Pierre Blaché from Pixabay

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer spent a portion of her COVID-19 briefing this week criticizing the long-awaited U.S. Senate Republicans’ COVID relief package that proved to be pretty light on actual relief for our residents, our state budget and our state as whole. 

State Budget Director Chris Kolb echoed her sentiments, noting that “there is not a single new dollar” in the Senate Republicans’ HEALS Act to help Michigan and other states balance their budgets. That rings in at a full $13 billion less in direct support to Michigan than the U.S. House-passed HEROES Act.

Their concern is valid. And the urgency is real.

At the Michigan League for Public Policy, we have said all along that we need significant federal help to counter the COVID-19 health crisis and the subsequent fiscal crisis here in Michigan. Our state was able to weather the first financial storm by tackling the 2020 state budget deficit with a bipartisan agreement that relied heavily on federal CARES Act funding. But with that agreement, federal COVID relief money has essentially run out, while a $3 billion budget hole still looms in the Fiscal Year 2021 budget that must be signed by Sept. 30.  

Unfortunately, after largely unanimous support for the CARES Act and other federal COVID relief early on, the U.S. Senate Republicans’ proposal shows that that solidarity, selflessness and compassion has significantly fizzled — even though the gravity of the situation and the circumstances facing many Michigan families has not.  

Whitmer calls on Senate GOP to increase federal COVID-19 recovery funds

The shortcomings of the HEALS Act stand in stark contrast to the rest of Gov. Whitmer’s update on COVID-19 cases and deaths. Michigan’s numbers are still alarmingly high, belying that the health crisis — and the related financial strain — facing our state is not going to be over anytime soon. 

In addition to the physical toll COVID is taking in Michigan, there is also disturbing data on the economic ills our residents are currently enduring—data and needs largely overlooked by the HEALS Act. 

According to a recent report by our national partners at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, nearly a half-million Michiganders do not have enough to eat right now. Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) enrollment went up by one-third in the state from February to May 2020. 

Twenty-two percent of Michigan residents are behind on rent just as state and national eviction moratoriums are expiring. Michigan had the third highest average unemployment rate in the country from April to June. And while hundreds of thousands of Michiganders are facing serious financial hardship, Black, Latinx, Indigenous and immigrant people have been hit the hardest because of structural racism that creates disparities in education, employment, housing and health care.

But the Republican proposal fails to meet the needs of our state or the moment, with no increase in SNAP benefits, no funding for homelessness services or additional rent vouchers, and substantially less money for laid-off workers. And it does not include nearly enough aid to state and local governments to prevent layoffs of teachers and public workers and cuts to schools, Medicaid or other critical public services.

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As a people-focused organization, the League has been fighting since the COVID crisis began to make sure the needs of residents with lower incomes, people of color and immigrants in Michigan are front and center. And as a fiscal policy-minded organization, we have been calling on our federal government to step up and use the money and policies at their disposal to support our state budget and head off unprecedented and devastating cuts. 

Our federal government has far more fiscal flexibility than we do at the state level, and right now, that means they have far more responsibility to steer us through this crisis. 

While the Senate Republicans’ HEALS Act falls far short of the House Democrats’ HEROES Act, having both plans on the table will hopefully jumpstart conversations on a compromise. 

As negotiations in Congress continue, we will continue to advocate for the needs of our fellow Michiganders, including: more federal funding and flexibility on how states can use it; additional funding for SNAP food assistance; expanded unemployment insurance; the temporary increase in the share of federal matching funds for Medicaid (FMAP).

U.S. Sens. Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing) and Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Twp.) continue to be strong advocates for Michigan’s needs during this difficult time, and we know they will keep fighting for a better relief package in the Senate. 

Hopefully, Senate Republicans will reevaluate their priorities and put people before politics as negotiations continue.