Mitch McConnell and Congress need to pass a bipartisan COVID-relief package which includes local and state aid immediately, otherwise states like New Jersey and Pennsylvania will suffer and risk laying off critical frontline workers in the midst of a second surge of the coronavirus. That’s the message New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy and Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf want federal Republican leaders to hear, following a Zoom conference Monday morning. The governors, both Democrats, slammed McConnell for not having passed a bipartisan COVID-relief package which includes funds for state and local aid. “Mitch McConnell’s continued obstruction of meaningful relief jeopardizes essential jobs and services, and threatens the broad distribution of a vaccine for millions,” Protect Our Care, an advocacy group which hosted the event, said in a statement.
The host of the conference, Zac Petkanas of Protect Our Care, said, “We are in the middle of a once-in-a-century catastrophe that’s impacting our public health and economy. We are at a point where every day we are seeing a 9/11’s worth of new deaths. Our hospitals are full and people are being turned away. Every week since this crisis hit back in March, 700k Americans have filed for unemployment. That is Great Recession-sized unemployment for every single week for 10 months.
After the HEROES Act was passed, more than 200 days have passed and McConnell has not acted, Petkanas asserted. “As a result, the situation today is much more dire than it had to be if he acted earlier this year. Yet McConnell is working to sabotage any deal that would alleviate the suffering of Americans. He is even working to undermine a compromised package that Democrats and Republicans have come together to support as a badly needed small down payment to stop the damage to the economy because he’s refusing to include the $160B for state, local, governments preventing the layoff of frontline workers bearing the brunt of the deadliest, most severe wave of the pandemic we have experienced so far.”
Governor Murphy began by saying it was great to see Mr. and Mrs. Wolf looking well after recovering from coronavirus. He thanked leaders on both sides of the aisle in DC who are trying to get a $900 billion deal through, but said he felt it would not be sufficient. “I think this is a $3-4 trillion moment and I think state aid needs to be multiples of $160B but I’ll take it. I know Tom would take it as well. I applaud efforts on both sides on the aisle but enough already.”
Governor Murphy urged Congress to act quickly, saying, “The longer this goes on, the bigger the price tag.” Murphy added that, “It would’ve been a lot cheaper in May.”
Murphy charged that the matter was not a political issue for red states versus blue states. “Early on there was a myth out there that this was a blue state thing to deal with legacy issues… we have big structural deficits and imbalances in New Jersey. I just want to say for the record this has nothing whatsoever to do with that.” The governor said that he had been elected to “deal with” New Jersey’s structural problems and would continue to address them.
He took another shot at McConnell, citing the Kentucky Republican’s remarks that the blue states should go under. “Senator McConnell at one point said it wouldn’t be a bad thing if the states went bankrupt. First of all, it would be a bad thing, but secondly that’s not what would happen if we don’t get the money. This is about continuing to employ the very frontline workers who we desperately need in our hour of need to deliver services. Fire, police, educators, EMS, that’s what this is about: to allow us to continue to deliver those services and to keep those jobs.”
Governor Murphy defined the need for local and state aid as having two imperatives. The first was to give a “bridge over troubled waters over the next few months.” Murphy said that New Jersey would begin its first vaccinations tomorrow but, “it isn’t a light switch, it’s going to take us many months” for the bulk of the state to get vaccinated. “There’s a need for a bridge to get us to that better day, which is months away, not years away,” Murphy said. “Then I believe there will be a bounce in the economy in the 2nd and 3rd quarter. And that’s a good thing.”
Murphy said people need to ask where they will be when the economy begins to bounce back. “Are you so impaired that you’ll spend what would be a positive increase in your fortunes just merely back on your feet? Have we done the right thing to keep you above water when that bounce hits, like the other boats, you are able to rise up with that better economic tide?”
Governor Wolf agreed with Murphy, saying, “You are absolutely right. It is going to be months before we get through this and to the point where enough people are vaccinated it makes a difference in the economy.” Wolf said that How we deal with this bridge, this first quarter, is going to determine how fast we bounce back economically… It depends on the leadership and willingness of the federal government, really the Republicans in Washington, to do the right thing. I am deeply disappointed with the federal government and Republicans in the federal government. At every stage Republican leaders on the federal level have not been there to support the people of this country. Their leadership has been weak or even lacking. Since spring we know this would be a slow-moving disaster with long term consequences for public health and the economy.”
The Pennsylvania governor praised the CARES Act which provided relief for a number of sectors, including hazard pay for front line workers and mortgage relief. “The same thing is happening now that happened a hundred years ago with the Spanish Flu, you had the first pass and second surge.” While Wolf was happy for the CARES Act relief, he said the funding had run out but the pandemic had not. “We need more help and funding that people in Pennsylvania and New Jersey truly need.”
“We need more help for our frontline workers, small businesses, schools and we need funding for a swift and successful vaccine distribution program,” Wolf continued. “We aren’t even getting enough money for that. Things are in bad shape.”
As New Jerseyans well know, and Murphy is familiar with given his battle throughout the year with restaurants who have been struggling to survive, sometimes operating in defiance of executive orders, Wolf said that restaurants and bars have been battered “through no fault of their own” and “the federal government can and should give [small businesses] a lifeline.”
The Pennsylvania chief said that the pandemic is worse than it was in the summer and spring and the need for funding was an issue which both parties recognized. “We need a comprehensive relief package right now… there are Republican as well as Democrat local governments facing crisis… the people who have been hardest… should not have to bear the brunt of the global pandemic on their own.”
Saying that the nation was facing an upcoming eviction and unemployment crisis, Wolf joined Murphy’s sentiments. “As Governor Murphy pointed out, the economy is going to be really hurt if we spend the next 3-4 months without more help from Washington. With the end in sight, we’re only going to see more suffering, we cannot do this on our own and the Republican leaders know it. What I cannot forgive is their willingness to let Americans suffer to score political points… I call on federal leadership and Mitch McConnell to listen to the needs of our people… the entire country is crying out to do it.”
Governor Murphy was asked how funding would be guaranteed for its set purposes and not diverted to benefits or the pension fund. “The CARES Act money at every step of the way has been very explicitly prescribed as to how you can spend it,” Murphy said. “We had challenges getting the guidance we needed in spending the money the right way. The fact of the matter is that pension or benefits was never been on the list of approved uses, nor will it ever be… We did cut services of about a billion and we went out and borrowed $4.2B which is not something I reflexively wake up wanting to do but we had no choice. If we did get federal stimulus, which, please God, I hope we will, part of our calculations will be not only to keep folks employed at the front lines but also to de-lever a little bit of that because that, for the time being, has allowed us to keep these folks employed. God willing we will be able to get that money sooner rather than later.”
Murphy praised the partnership between New Jersey and Pennsylvania as the states of the North-East have worked to confront the crisis. “As regional governors and teams, we already had a close relationship but this has brought us even closer. We share broad principles but that doesn’t mean we’re in lock step with every move we make, but broadly the neighborhood has been in broad sympathy with the values and themes as this relates to this virus.”
When asked how close PA and NJ were to bankruptcy, both governors denied the notion. Wolf said that Pennsylvania was “not close to bankruptcy” but concerned more about people facing financial hardships. “The lack of support and help and leadership from Washington, especially from Republicans who claim to care so much about ordinary Americans, the lack of leadership is devastating. Families are going to go bankrupt, small businesses, we need help and need it now and if we don’t get it, that’s where the problem is going to be.”
Murphy echoed Wolf, saying New Jersey “is not going to go bankrupt, we’re not remotely close to going bankrupt but that doesn’t mean we are not going to have restaurants, small businesses, families going on the rocks.” Regarding the need for federal aid towards state and local towards frontline workers, the governor said, “We desperately need them, they are our heroes, they need security and that can only come with federal money right now.”
With respect to lost revenues and increased expenses, Governor Murphy said that could account for $20 billion or more. “I stand by that, sadly… this is a very complicated, challenging number of months ahead of us.” The governor said everyone was “thrilled” that the vaccine was being rolled out but “the logistics of it, this is going to war level complexity.”
“Next year is going to be really rough if the federal government does not act,” Wolf said.
Murphy pointed out that vaccine distribution will cost money the state needed, which McConnell had the power to unlock on the federal level. The governor also called on Washington to implement a national testing strategy. “We have suffered, as a nation, for a lack of one.”