President Joe Biden speaks during a National Governors Association meeting in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., Monday. Photo by Oliver Contreras/UPI | License Photo
Jan. 31 (UPI) -- President Joe Biden on Monday urged U.S. governors to embrace available federal help for a range of needs while the state leaders called on the administration to "move past" COVID-19 restrictions.
During his meeting with 30 members of the National Governors Association in the East Room of the White House, Biden called on them to access federal funding to address such concerns as crumbling infrastructure, gun violence and child care through the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill known as the American Rescue Plan.
"A major part [of the Rescue Plan] was $350 billion allocated to your states and local budgets, as well as funds for school and for childcare," he said. "And we know the difference this has made in jobs. Last year, we had the greatest job growth in American history, and as part of that, state and local jobs grew by 464,000 -- the most in 20 years."
Under the school funding portion of the bill, he said, "there's a lot of money you have there for everything from dealing with ventilation to clean buses -- school buses and everything in between. There's no reason why we can't keep our schools open, in my view."
Addressing an uptick in crime during the pandemic, Biden said, "I made it clear we should use these funds to combat violent crime as well, including hiring additional police officers and investing in community violence interventions that have been proven to work in communities."
Following the meeting, the association's leaders told reporters they had asked Biden to provide "clear guidelines" on how to "move away" from ongoing COVID-19 restrictions.
"People are striving for a more normal life," said Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, the group's Republican chairman, while also acknowledging that "obviously, you can't move away from a virus that's still there."
There was "a lot of good discussion about what does the road from pandemic to endemic look like? How do we keep score?" added Gov. Phil Murphy of New Jersey, the group's Democratic vice chairman.
During the meeting, Hutchinson urged the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to provide more clarity over when states will be able to individually move into endemic status and away from the current COVID-19 pandemic status.
"We need the CDC to help us to have the right standards to end this pandemic and move to more endemic status," he said. "And so that's an important element that we as governors, in a bipartisan way, hope that the CDC can be helpful to define that more clearly. We want to go from today to more normal."
Hutchinson has been supportive of Biden's handling of the COVID-19 situation and urged people in his conservative state to get vaccinated.
Earlier in the meeting, Vice President Kamala Harris urged the group to protect American voting rights, at a time when the issue has garnered national attention.
Recently passed election laws in a number of Republican-led states, led to the introduction of the Freedom To Vote Act, which would enact a number of voting reforms.
Harris struck a conciliatory tone from the outset, referring to examples of cooperation between the federal and state governments.
"When we in particular face crises, we come together regardless of party affiliation to do the work that must be done. So we are looking at historic challenges and new challenges, that range from the climate crisis, to COVID, to cybersecurity. And together we will continue to work as we have over the last 12 months," said Harris, before segueing into the subject of voting rights.
"I would also like to ask, that in the spirit of bipartisanship, that we think about our partnership in the context of our states being laboratories of our democracy, and in particular on the issue of voting," said Harris
"I believe that regardless of who we voted for in the last election, we all, as leaders of our nation, understand the importance of ensuring that all people who are eligible to vote have an ability and a meaningful ability to vote and access to the ballot. So I would ask that in this coming year, we work together to ensure that all Americans who are eligible to vote actually have meaningful access to the ballot."
Gov. Greg Abbott, R-Texas, and Gov. Brian Kemp, R-Ga., did not attend the meeting. Both GOP-controlled states passed voting legislation last year critics argue will disproportionately impact Black voters and voters with disabilities.
Hutchinson, Gov. Brad Little, R-Idaho and Gov. Doug Ducey, R-Ariz., were three of the Republicans to attend the conference.
Biden said keeping schools open is an essential part of heading in that direction.
"Getting kids to school is an essential step to getting our economy back to normal, we're not quite there yet. But we also know that if people find they can afford childcare, they'll get back to work as well," Biden said.
"America is one of those nations, I think the only nation that has come out of every crisis stronger than it went into the crisis. We've had a crisis, we've come out, we've been stronger. I think that's where we are again. I think we have a chance to restate and re-assert our world leadership on a whole range of issues and lead the world on everything from the environment to immigration."