Editorial Roundup: Michigan

Detroit News. Nov. 25, 2021.

Editorial: Whitmer, stay firm on avoiding mandates

Much like last holiday season, Michigan is getting slammed with a wave of COVID-19 infections. While this is discouraging, we’re pleased to see that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is avoiding lockdowns and other orders she relied on for much of the pandemic.

In recent weeks, Michigan has led the country in new virus cases and hospitalizations are also on the rise, leading some in the medical community to push for more measures to halt the spread.

That’s what’s happening in other countries like Austria and the Netherlands, where officials there are once again turning to draconian stay-home measures and other restrictions. And states like California and New York are putting in place tougher vaccines and masking requirements.

No one wants to see undue pressure on the hospital system and already worn down nurses and doctors. But Michigan can’t afford the restrictions that brought the economy to a halt. Many businesses never recovered, and the labor market is still faltering.

Since the last health orders were lifted in June, Whitmer has kept her focus for the most part on vaccines and encouraging Michiganians to get them. More than 70% of residents 16 and up have now had at least one dose.

Despite that progress, hospitalizations from COVID are close to a record high.

That led the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services recently to “advise” masking indoors, regardless of vaccination status and to encourage businesses and other establishments to ensure that all people entering, including employees, wear masks. The health department has the ability to issue epidemic orders that can force masking and broad business and school restrictions, as we saw in the winter and spring.

And last week, Whitmer chimed in that “additional guidance” will be forthcoming from her administration.

Guidance is OK, but the governor must resist calls to do more. For instance, Debra Furr-Holden, an epidemiologist and associate dean at Michigan State University, chided Whitmer for not stepping in with tougher measures.

“We didn’t intervene when we saw cases starting to creep up,” Furr-Holden said last week in an NPR interview. “That was the time to put mask mandates back in place, to really keep pushing for people to get vaccinated, to restrict indoor gatherings and density, requiring kids to wear masks in schools, and we didn’t do that.”

Last year at this time, Whitmer shut down in-person learning at high schools and colleges and restricted indoor dining for weeks.

But now that vaccines are readily available and other COVID treatments are an option, such top-down approaches must be avoided.

___

Traverse City Record-Eagle. Nov. 28, 2021.

Editorial: UIA problems go beyond pandemic mismanagement

The mess always looks worse in the light of day, and details of the gross mismanagement of Michigan’s Unemployment Insurance Agency are as bad as we could imagine.

During the past few decades, being let down by the state unemployment safety net has become a bit of a pastime for Michiganders. In fact, the UIA has become the bureaucratic equivalent of the Detroit Lions — occasionally offering a glimmer of hope for a turnaround, but ultimately delivering disappointment and agony.

It’s the one state agency where mediocrity and downright incompetence seems to transcend management. Sounds a lot like the Lions, huh?

But the most frustrating articulation of the dysfunction at UIA came a little more than a week ago when Michigan’s Auditor General Doug Ringler released a report summarizing his recent audit of the agency’s handling of claims during the pandemic. It’s an inspection triggered by a series calamity that seemed to plague the department since the first whiff of an incoming spike in filings triggered by statewide shutdowns as COVD-19 arrived in the state in spring 2020.

Ringler’s inquiry followed a series of folly at UIA that erupted the moment a gush of newly unemployed workers flooded computer and phone systems to file claims in early 2020.

The auditor found “A variety of actions and inaction by UIA’s senior leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic contributed to a poor control environment (tone at the top). Those actions directly contributed to the creation of invalid PUA application and certification processes and UIA’s failure to timely or appropriately address issues pointed out by the U.S. Department of Labor and UIA staff.”

The report offers some new details we knew about the agency’s mishandling of federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance payments (expanded unemployment benefits offered to many, including freelancers and independent contractors who lost work because of the pandemic shutdowns). But the audit mostly ties together a series of revelations a number of journalists and outside investigations uncovered during the past several months.

Specifically, the auditor estimates state leaders paid out about $3.9 billion in benefits to more than 300,000 people who shouldn’t have received payments, according to federal guidelines. We were only alerted to those qualification problems when UIA officials sent letters last summer notifying about 700,000 people they would need to reregister for benefits already paid. That’s because state officials had allowed workers to qualify for payments under four criteria the feds said were invalid.

The auditor’s report confirms state leaders were notified of the problems as early as June 2020, but continued to issue without correcting the problem until early 2021. During that time, the agency’s director, Steve Gray, resigned under a deal where Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration granted him $86,000 in severance pay in exchange for his signature on a confidentiality agreement.

Unfortunately, those technological, overpayment and leadership problems were just a few among a long string of miscues, mishaps and mismanagement at UIA. The agency has a history of being unprepared to serve influx of filings. Under Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration, managers replaced droves of human claims workers with a computer system that incorrectly accused thousands of Michiganders of fraud, causing irreparable financial damage to many.

And in the midst of the ongoing PUA debacle, we’ve written about several people whose names have been used to fraudulently obtain benefits. In each of those instances, people who’ve notified the agency of the issue, including one man whose long-deceased wife apparently filed for benefits, said reporting the obvious incidents of fraud was nearly impossible.

That history of debacle, coupled with problems exacerbated by the pandemic means the agency’s new director, Julia Dale, faces a tough task. It will take massive amounts of will to pull off the reconstruction UIA so obviously needs.

In the meantime, as our time rooting for the Lions has taught us, we won’t waste time getting our hopes up for a miraculous turnaround.

No, we will reserve our celebration for results.

___

Alpena News. Nov. 26, 2021.

Editorial: Thankful for civil disagreements

Today, as we continue our series on thankfulness, we want to say thanks to every one of you out there who has a friend or loved one who subscribes to a different political viewpoint but still speaks to that person civilly, disagreeing without being disagreeable.

There are examples of it throughout Northeast Michigan.

The regular writers of letters to the editor who speak with kindness and respect toward the other side (there are a few, and we appreciate you!).

Nathan Skibbe and Matt Waligora, chief executives of Alpena Township and Alpena, respectively, who are in the midst of a years-long, expensive court battle over water and sewer rates but still speak respectfully of and to each other, and still find ways for their communities to work together outside of the water and sewer issue.

It happens at dinner tables all across Northeast Michigan.

We thank you.

Civil disagreements keep a community and a country going. It’s how we find a way to work through those disagreements, instead of through each other, to find common ground and better solutions to our problems.

Jeb Bush once said: “Treating people fairly and with civility is not a bad thing… It would be good for our country if political leaders actually took that to heart.”

We agree, and we’re thankful to everyone else who does, too.

END