Gilda Z. Jacobs: We can’t let 2020 be Michigan’s best year in bipartisanship 

February 1, 2021 10:17 am

Michigan Capitol | Susan J. Demas

Bipartisanship might not feel very plausible right now, and in fact, seems to be getting more far-fetched by the day. 

I had planned to use this column to look ahead and echo the chord of accord Gov. Gretchen Whitmer struck in her 2021 State of the State address last week. But it’s hard to sound credible in the media when it comes across like you haven’t read a news headline in days. 

So instead, I decided to sidestep the political gamesmanship going on right now and look back on where common political ground and success were achieved last year. And this also serves as a friendly reminder — to myself and you, intrepid readers — that all of this progress was made amidst an epically tense climate. The governor and Republican-led Legislature don’t necessarily have to get along, or agree wholeheartedly, to get things done. 

Even after the “horrible year” our state and our nation have endured, including deep-seated and violent political division over the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2020 presidential election, a conspiracy plot against the governor, and outright insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, some good policies did manage to make it out of 2020.

The Legislature and governor were able to accomplish quite a bit 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.

These bipartisan efforts will help all Michigan workers get a better job and build a better life. This includes eliminating hurdles for workers, as the Clean Slate 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 that came out of a dark time, but much more help is still needed. 

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, more than 40 other states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico all offer a maximum of 26 weeks or more of unemployment benefits.

The challenges for unemployed and underemployed workers preceded COVID-19, and will continue even after the pandemic gets under control. The state needs 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 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.

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Gilda Z. Jacobs
Gilda Z. Jacobs

Gilda Z. Jacobs has dedicated her life to helping others, working as an educator, helping provide housing for people with disabilities, serving in state and local government for 30 years, including 12 in the Michigan Legislature, and currently leading the Michigan League for Public Policy as President and CEO.