WASHINGTON – When Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee butted heads with Donald Trump last year over the prior administration’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, the then-president called Inslee a snake.
“I may still be one,” the governor said on Thursday with a chuckle when asked how things have changed under President Joe Biden. “But I’m a well-cared-for snake.”
Inslee, a Democrat, said there’s been a huge increase in responsiveness since Biden took office. And where problems have emerged on coordination between states and the federal government, Inslee is confident improvements will be made.
“It’s just such a fundamental change,” he told USA TODAY.
The praise is not limited to governors of the president’s party.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, a Republican who was among a handful of governors and mayors who met Biden at the White House earlier this month, has criticized the president’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief plan as too pricey but describes working with the administration as a “good partnership.”
“It’s a good relationship, it’s a good partnership,” said Hutchinson, vice chairman of the National Governors Association. “The communication flow is good. They’re there to answer questions and we’re working through it every day and I trust that will continue.”
There are still both partisan and bipartisan tensions between the White House and the states’ top executives, some of whom were among those who questioned Biden’s election victory.
More:‘The need is real’: GOP mayors embrace Biden’s COVID-19 relief plan even as Republican lawmakers pan it
Governors want logistical, financial and other support from the federal government but also want autonomy in decision making. GOP governors have criticized some of the policy changes Biden is making on energy, the environment and other issues.
But governors said they are appreciative of how the new administration has tried to work with them on the pandemic, including through weekly calls between states and members of the White House’s COVID-19 task force.
“They are genuine discussions and they are problem solving sessions,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the Democratic chair of the National Governors Association, told Biden Thursday. “And they’ve made real progress.”
Governors are also eager for the help that could come both through the emergency relief package pending in Congress – which includes $350 billion in aid for cities and states – and through the longer-term “recovery” effort that Biden has promised will follow. Though still in the works, that multi-trillion package to “build back better” is expected to include extensive funding for roads, bridges and other infrastructure projects across the nation.
More:Do states and cities ‘need’ Biden’s $350 billion in direct COVID-19 relief? It depends where you’re asking
“President Obama and President Trump both identified infrastructure reform as one of their top priorities. Yet, year after year, nothing has gotten done in Washington,” Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, wrote in prepared remarks for a Senate hearing on Wednesday. “Now, President Biden has rightly put this issue at the top of his agenda, and the nation’s governors stand ready to work with him and his administration.”
Addressing governors at their virtual winter meeting on Thursday, Biden made a pitch for the initial aid package, listing its many components as he spoke by video to the group.
“You know a lot of it already because the plan was created to include many of the things you have individually and collectively asked me for in recent conversations,” Biden said. “Let’s get this done.”
The group of governors Biden spoke to is much more evenly divided politically than four years ago. Democrats hold 23 governorships now compared with 16 at the start of the Trump administration.
Near the top of his remarks, Biden called states the “laboratories of democracy” in a nod to their independence. But he emphasized that a national approach is needed on the pandemic and other issues because “so many of our challenges don’t stop at our border of our states.”
“We have to fight this together as one,” he said.
Trump gave states the lead
When Trump first addressed the National Governors Association after taking office in 2017, he promised to give back to governors “a lot of the powers that have been taken away from states.”
Trump also made one of his most famous comments about the complexity of the nation’s health laws that he wanted to undo.
“Nobody knew health care could be so complicated,” he said.
Trump failed to overhaul the health care system and his “locally executed, state managed and federally supported” approach to the pandemic caused problems for governors.
Early on, states found themselves in bidding wars against each other and the federal government for scarce ventilators and other medical supplies like face masks and gloves.
If governors publicly faulted the federal government, they could face the wrath of Trump, who in some instances, threatened to pull federal funding.
Inslee, whose state was the first to record a coronavirus outbreak and death, got attacked when he tweeted that efforts to combat the coronavirus would be more successful “if the Trump administration stuck to the science and told the truth.”
Trump called Inslee a snake who is “not a good governor.” He accused Illinois Gov. J. B. Pritzker of not being able to do his job and “always complaining.” He traded insults with Cuomo and referred to Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer as “half-Whit.” Trump said the federal government shouldn’t deal with Whitmer or Inslee.
It wasn’t just Democratic governors who sought more help from the administration.
In October, Cuomo and Hutchinson – as the bipartisan heads of the National Governors Association – told Trump that states needed more information on how vaccines would be distributed, once they were ready, and which responsibilities would be handled by either the federal government or states.
The Trump administration never fully implemented a September recommendation from the Government Accountability Office to outline how distributing and administering the vaccine would be coordinated across all levels of government and the private and nonprofit sectors.
“Doing so, especially ensuring local officials are part of the planning efforts, would improve the nation’s distribution efforts,” Nicole Clowers, managing director of the GAO’s health care team, told the House Homeland Security Committee Wednesday.
In addition to the weekly calls that Jeff Zients, Biden’s COVID-19 coordinator, holds with governors, the administration also began giving governors a three-week outlook on vaccine distribution to help with planning.
Hutchinson said the White House is aiming to give governors a longer-range projection beyond three weeks in next week’s call, looking ahead as the federal government ramps up vaccine distribution in June and July.
“That’s a lot of planning on both the federal government’s part and our part to get those doses out,” he said. “The number of clinics, the providers and the human resources for it are going to take a lot of work so the more information we can have, the better.”
Ngozi Ezike, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, likewise said that three-week lead time has been helpful.
“One of the biggest hurdles to a successful response over the past year has been a lack of clear and consistent communication and muddled messaging from the highest levels of government on down,” Ezike told the House Homeland Security Committee on Wednesday.
But while Illinois appreciates the increased planning, transparency and efforts to increase vaccination supplies, Ezike emphasized that the state still has “more rolled up sleeves than vaccine filled syringes.”
Governors, who are under pressure to get residents vaccinated, want the public to better understand which distribution programs states run and which ones the federal government controls.
And they’ve asked the Biden administration for more say in how the federal government distributes vaccines to pharmacies and community health centers in their states.
“There are some things that we’re still working on together. One is to coordinate more efficiently the federal stream of distribution that’s now going to pharmacies and community clinics with the state stream going to those same entities,” Inslee said. “I’m confident it will get resolved.”
In a discussion of those concerns during Tuesday’s weekly call with governors, the data director for the White House’s COVID-19 task force said changes have been made to the government’s data tracker to include new information on vaccine distribution locations. The tracker also now distinguishes between doses delivered to and administered by local governments, federal entities and private partners.
Hutchinson said the vaccine distribution split will be determined by performance and how well states are able to get the doses out. If there’s a problem with equity, the administration may utilize some of their other federal partners.
“States, of course, want to be held accountable,” he said. “We want to prove the effectiveness of what we’re doing and that was recognized this last week when well over 90% of the vaccine allocation went to the states.”
Tensions still exist
While Biden has given the federal government a bigger role in fighting the pandemic and tried to create more of a national strategy, there’s much that is still up to governors. Where that’s created some fault lines, the administration has stressed its preference without picking a fight with governors.
“I think the whole spirit of this governors’ conference and our administration is changing the attitude a little bit about how we deal with one another,” Biden said Thursday. “At least I hope so.”
On Wednesday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki was asked about Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont’s decision to prioritize age over other risk factors and most employment categories when distributing vaccines. The federal guidelines, by contrast, prioritize grocery store employees, public transit staff, food and agriculture workers, and other frontline essential workers after health care personnel and residents of long-term care facilities are vaccinated.
Psaki said that while the White House stands by the federal recommendations, “obviously, governors make different choices about the prioritization and the prioritization order.”
When Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte lifted the state’s mask mandate this month, Psaki likewise said the White House encourages everyone “to follow federal guidelines.”
“But again, the president knows this is no easy time, and he is more than happy to engage with mayors and governors who – even those who disagree with him,” she added.
Those disagreements include Biden’s executive order to begin halting oil and gas leasing on federal lands and waters. In a letter imploring Biden to withdraw the order, 17 Republican governors said the move will kill good-paying jobs and threaten America’s energy independence and national security.
And as Biden continues to build out his massive vaccine campaign, pledging equal distribution regardless of income of status, Hutchinson said he’d do well to remember his state partners.
“We have the same commitment and we’re going along the same way,” Hutchinson said. “It’s just we can’t be micromanaged in that process.”
Role for former governor:Jennifer Granholm confirmed as energy secretary in bipartisan Senate vote
Harassment accusation:New York lawmakers call for investigation of allegations against Gov. Cuomo