A version of this column appeared in Michigan Advance on Feb. 1
Bipartisanship might not feel very plausible right now. But even after the “horrible year” our state and our nation have endured, including deep-seated and violent political division and outright insurrection over the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2020 presidential election, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer still chose to strike a chord of accord in her 2021 State of the State address last week.
A more intrepid listener than I counted the word “bipartisan” a dozen times and “common ground” four times in the speech. The governor talked about focusing on what unites us and the need to work together to “fix the damn road ahead.”
This was not just a main theme of the speech or the name of a tour she will be launching to engage with residents around the state—it was also an appeal to the Republican-led Michigan Legislature. And a lot of the speech focused on what the Legislature and governor were able to accomplish when they worked together, including many policies to help more Michiganders find work.
Many of these bipartisan wins were also top priorities for the Michigan League for Public Policy, and we were proud to work with the Legislature and governor alike to help open more doors to opportunity for all state residents. You see, bipartisanship really can have significant payoffs.
These bipartisan efforts will help rural, urban and suburban Michigan workers get a better job and build a better life. This includes eliminating hurdles for workers, as the Clean Slate criminal record expungement bills did last year, as well as offering stepping stones for workers to reach better opportunities with programs like Michigan Reconnect and Futures for Frontliners. These policies and programs are part of a larger effort to not just get more Michiganders working, but to get them good-paying, stable careers and provide more opportunities to Black and brown workers and workers with lower incomes in the process.
These were silver linings to come out of a dark time, and they were all achieved with bipartisan “purple” power. But much more is needed, and it will take even more political cooperation and negotiation to make it happen. Because these are issues residents want—no, demand—their state government to be working on.
As the governor’s State of the State address and the 2021 policy agendas of the House and Senate Republicans acknowledge, first and foremost, we need to curb the spread of COVID-19 in order to help workers and businesses alike get through this health and economic emergency. The governor’s Michigan COVID Recovery Plan will work to reduce the spread of COVID-19 before and after exposure, using federal funding to ramp up much-needed vaccination distribution, expand COVID-19 testing and tracing, and more. But the Legislature is responsible for allocating federal funding and will have to equally buy in on this plan.
We also echo the governor’s call for a permanent restoration of 26 weeks of state unemployment benefits. The League opposed the shortsighted move to cut six weeks of state unemployment benefits in 2011, and has been advocating for the restoration of those benefits ever since. Currently, over 40 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico all offer a maximum of 26 weeks or more of unemployment benefits.
As we’ve heard from workers around the state and lawmakers from every district over the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has magnified the need for additional unemployment benefits. But the challenges for unemployed and underemployed workers preceded COVID-19, and sadly will continue even after the pandemic gets under control. There has been bipartisan support for a temporary extension of unemployment benefits, but we need to ensure that an additional six weeks of financial support is permanent and always there.
As a whole, state assistance programs have been beaten up and cut over the last decade, and restoring unemployment is one of many ways that our elected officials can work together to mend Michigan’s frayed safety net. For years, too many Michigan families have been one unexpected crisis away from hardship. And while that used to be a fear on an individual basis, COVID-19 has led to it being experienced globally.
No resident should have to face hunger or homelessness, eviction or foreclosure, unemployment or sickness without help. People can’t afford groceries and other necessities right now, and they certainly can’t afford to have divisive politics derail good policy. Now is when leadership needs to lead.
Last year, we saw that our policymakers could work together when it counted, and they still have the shared power—and shared responsibility—to help families weather this storm. We know that there will never be universal agreement, and negotiations aren’t always pretty. But the needs of all Michiganders must continue to come first.