By Benita M. Dodd
State and local government budgets, businesses, families and individuals continue to reel from the effects of the novel coronavirus. The biggest factor is the unknown. The longer the crisis continues, the dimmer the future appears to many, and the bigger the hole they must dig out of.
On March 24, the Foundation released an Issue Analysis with proposals for near-term responses to assist the state in tackling COVID-19. Several have been implemented, including the easing of licensure for medical professionals and the use of university labs to assist in processing COVID-19 tests.
As the Foundation noted in the Issue Analysis:
The COVID-19 crisis requires extraordinary collaboration between the private and public sectors to address the healthcare needs of our communities, while assisting businesses and corporations in this time of economic uncertainty. It is essential that the state continue working to ease systematic and regulatory burdens, which will better allow providers to practice to the best of their abilities. And it is imperative the Georgia continue upon the path of sound policies to work toward brighter days ahead.
In the coming weeks, the Foundation will release a series of policy briefs proposing specific “mid-term” responses as the state continues to tackle coronavirus and its aftermath. It has become clear, however, that even great ideas and good intentions require evidence they are being executed, and that they are being implemented in the spirit in which they were intended.
As one example: On April 14, the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) issued a desperate call to action to Congress and the Small Business Administration, pointing out that the federal emergency loans and grants programs for small businesses were nowhere near being treated as an emergency. President Trump signed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act into law on March 27; Congress had anticipated approval of promised $10,000 grants, at least, within three days after a business applied.
It took an NFIB survey of its members to learn that while about half of small businesses had already applied for loans and grants, as of April 9 a mere 4% of applicants had been approved, “while the vast majority of applicants still had not received any communication regarding their application. As of April 9, no business owner surveyed had received a loan or a grant.”
Georgia should learn from such missteps. Aside from a clear need to set realistic timelines and deadlines, the state can avoid unforeseen complications by including at least three steps to ensure the response meets the expectations: transparency, accountability and benchmarks.
Transparency is necessary and important so that citizens, taxpayers, area experts and businesses are easily able to follow the money, the processes and the results as responses are considered and implemented. They can also warn of unforeseen complications. State government should create a one-stop-shop – a website – of the approaches intended so that anyone can access and follow all plans.
It is important that public bodies avoid taking advantage of social distancing to conduct business in ways that fall short of open meeting requirements. Public meetings should still enable public comment, with clear and enforced rules about how to be recognized.
Time is of the essence for some public expenditures. Nevertheless, clear and accessible guidelines and opportunities should facilitate vendor bids. When that is not possible, there should be some accounting of how the decision to use a particular vendor was made.
Accountability by government agencies and the targets of any government or legislative assistance – businesses, agencies, departments and individuals – can ensure that policies are being implemented as intended, with fairness and without favoritism, and that they meet expectations. For example, public agencies still paying employees should provide services to every extent possible, or implement furloughs. Accountability measures thwart attempts to cut corners or shortchange taxpayers.
Benchmarks along the way will ensure timely, ongoing oversight that allows for corrections and re-evaluation should reforms and policy changes need more (or less) intervention or guidance in the uncertain aftermath and resurgence of coronavirus pandemic, as well as its economic consequences. A state-provided website should describe what is taking place, step by step. For each policy area, the state should list the steps and the timeline for accomplishments.
The enormous quality-of-life challenges facing Georgians, from their health to their pocketbooks, can be mitigated through sound policies backed by exacting standards from unwavering leadership. Given Georgia’s deserved reputation for sensible spending and sound economic policies, as Wallethub noted recently, the state has a head start. Some may consider the pandemic as a barrier to Georgia’s progress. The ensuing policy briefs will demonstrate, we hope, that it should be viewed as a steppingstone to greater opportunities.
Benita M. Dodd is vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.