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Whitmer set to testify before congressional panel on COVID-19 response

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is set to testify Tuesday before a U.S. House panel about the state’s response to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Whitmer, a Democrat, is scheduled to appear virtually for a remote hearing of the Democratic-run Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee. It will be the panel’s first fully remote hearing.

Also on the witness panel are Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, and Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican.

The hearing titled “On the Front Lines: How Governors are Battling the COVID-19 Pandemic” is set for 11:30 a.m. Tuesday.

Michigan has been hard hit by the virus, with the state reporting over 5,400 deaths through Friday, ranking fifth among the states for the most COVID deaths. 

"Our actions are working. Our case numbers are dropping, and we are ramping up testing and working through our plan for a real engagement of our economy in a way that protects our people," Whitmer said during a Friday press briefing.

"There's no question there is more work to do, and we must all keep doing our part. ... Orders don't fix the problem. It's the response to them that do, and every Michigander should be proud of what we've accomplished. Let's not drop our guard now."

Whitmer said she looked forward to sharing the details of the state's "aggressive" COVID response, but also how the virus has punched a "massive" hole in the state budget. 

She said it's her "fervent hope" that her Tuesday testimony can convey the "precise story" of what is happening in Michigan about its $3.2 billion budget shortfall and what's at risk as a result. 

She plans to encourage federal lawmakers to provide more funding to help states and local governments struggling with revenue shortfalls as a result of the coronavirus shutdowns, she said. 

House Democrats earlier this month passed a sweeping $3 trillion coronavirus relief bill, which included $1 trillion to shore up states and cities to avert municipal layoffs. Senate Republicans have not taken up the package. 

"In the midst of a pandemic, it would be incredibly short-sighted to force cuts into public health, public education and public safety and, yet, that's the potential problem that we're confronting and that's what I'm trying to avoid," Whitmer said. 

"It's my hope that the Republicans in town are reaching out to the United States Senate leadership, as well as the White House, to encourage them to move forward so we can avoid that."

Michigan has bipartisan representation on the full Energy and Commerce Committee including former Chairman Fred Upton of St. Joseph; and U.S. Reps. Tim Walberg, R-Tipton, and Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn. 

Committee Chairman Frank Pallone Jr. of New Jersey and Subcommittee Chair Diana DeGette of Colorado suggested in a statement they want to hear from Whitmer and the other governors on where they feel the federal response to the pandemic is falling short.

Whitmer has been critical of the Trump administration, especially in the early weeks of the pandemic when she was seeking more personal protection equipment and ventilators from the federal stockpile. 

“As more states start to re-open, access to widespread testing, as well as contact tracing and surveillance, are key to monitor for potential outbreaks and keep communities safe,”Pallone and DeGette said in a joint statement.

“But for months, the Trump administration has relegated its responsibilities to the states and refused to develop and implement a coordinated national testing strategy with clear timelines and benchmarks," the Democratic lawmakers continued.

“This failure of leadership has essentially left states battling each other on the open market.  We look forward to hearing from several governors on their states’ ongoing work to respond to the pandemic and what further support is needed from Congress and the administration."

mburke@detroitnews.com