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State Managed and Locally Executed: Federalism in Practice at FEMA

Effective communication between the federal, state, and local governments is a precondition of any healthy, functioning federal system. Yesterday, we saw that effective communication in the American federal system may have implications for the lives and well being of thousands of human beings as this country takes uncertain steps forward in to uncharted territory.

FEMA, the Governors, and the Corona Virus Taskforce

On March 19, governors across the nation met via teleconference at the FEMA headquarters in Washington, D.C. As of the time of writing, 50% of the Coronavirus cases were clustered in three states. The meeting captured both the extraordinary challenges facing the national government in focusing its resources on states where the need is greatest, but also the crucial importance of constant communication upwards from the states to the federal level during a critical juncture in the nation's history.


Why Federalism Matters in a Crisis

This post is just a snapshot of one moment in one afternoon of a nation in crisis. The FEMA meeting on March 19 is symbolic, though, not only because it represents a unique opportunity for bipartisan cooperation in a moment of increasing national anxiety, partisanship, and distrust. From a federalism point of view, the FEMA meeting is significant because it illustrates what is truly at stake in maintaining an effective, accountable intergovernmental system. The meeting also marks a potential turning point and a

new approach to national emergencies, one in which states are increasingly being encouraged to take on the work of emergency relief and to foster a "culture of preparedness."

The idea of pushing responsibility back to the states when emergencies arise is not new. In 2018, long before the current crisis, FEMA officials had pivoted toward state-readiness and state-led emergency response. Around that time, FEMA began using a condensed formula for state readiness that is now becoming, in essence, a catch-phrase for our times: emergency responses would now be “federally supported, state managed, and locally executed."

Emergency responses would now be “federally supported, state managed, and locally executed."


Most readers will not have time to sit through the 60+ minute teleconference. The following highlights are representative of this new approach to emergency preparedness.

  • Georgia Governor Brian Kemp encouraged President Trump to leave directives for the national guard with the Governors. Governors, he argued, are"best able to know what's going on in their state." Governor Kemp also made a recommendation to insist on bloc grants to help states fill current or emergency revenue shortfalls.

  • New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy underscored Gov. Kemp's request for "flexible block grants" to allow state leaders to move quickly and efficiently in response to the spread of Covid-19.

  • Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards noted that cases of Coronavirus are growing at different rates. The federal government response should be careful to consider the ways in which Covid-19 is growing on a "per capita basis." Federal Government should consider differential growth when considering ways to support Health Care infrastructure.

  • Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts relayed to the President a problem in the distribution of reagents among states. Requested a waiver of the fingerprint requirement for alternative "popup" daycares for first responders and public health officials. Requested "more flexibility" for schools during the crisis related to the requirement that people not congregate in groups > 10 people. Noted that schools are now operating without students with them, due to federal guidelines, and suggested that regulations be reduced to allow states more flexibility to use facilities in novel ways to address local needs.

  • Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker echoed the argument from previous Governors that "more flexibility is better than less" with financial assistance. Noted with some consternation that some states were "losing" in their battle to place orders for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), as a result of direct competition with the national government. Added that the states should have more leverage in the supply chain issue (if a company has a "chance to sell to [the state] or to [President Trump], [the states] will lose every one of those").

  • Maryland Governor Larry Hogan summarized points from a meeting with the National Governors Association (NGA). Consolidated concerns, through the states. "Most consensus" on 1) trying to dedicate 50% of supplemental funding "to the states" directly; 2) the need to act quickly on waiver requests ("we are in a good position at the state level to know the real needs and get the money out faster to some of those small businesses impacted"); 3) increase state access to PPE; 4) support for Title 32 authorization, to give Governors "more flexibility with their National Guard"; 5) need for more guidance on the Defense Production Act, how the "states can be more involved in [those] industries in the states [that are affected by the DPA]"; 6) more flexibility for the completion of the census and the real ID. Reiterated the need for other states to go through "regional FEMA coordinators" rather than "bombarding" the executive for assistance and requests.

  • FEMA coordinator: "like all emergencies, responses [are] most successful when it is locally executed, state managed, and federally supported. We can not stress this enough." Governments with unmet needs should be directed to the regional FEMA administrator.

  • Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo requested direct and sizable stimulus to hospitals, especially those that are now following federal guidelines to forego elective surgeries. Asked to consider short-term liquidity needs of states. Assistance with bridge financing. Full support for block grants and flexibility to "quickly react to the needs of our small businesses."

  • Utah Governor Gary Herbert asked for help in federal messaging to counteract "doom and gloom." More flexibility for local businesses to be creative in options for gathering, as opposed to a "total shutdown." States and local government need to create, innovate, and adapt.

  • Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer noted proximity of Michigan to Canadian border, and therefore the need for "thoughtful policy" that allows states to adapt to different needs.

  • Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker raised concerns over a lack of drive-through testing in the state. Officials responded by noting that cooperation was needed between state labs and large commercial laboratories. FEMA also noted that the lack of testing in some states was due to a lack of clear communication from states identifying needs. The Governor responded by noting that the challenge in Illinois on testing is related to a lack of supplies (reagents and swabs), which had been "monopolized by the [federa] drive-through testing" programs.

  • South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem asked for more clarification on triaging of supplies. Noted that South Dakota had experienced difficulty in communicating with CDC, and placing orders. South Dakota unable to run "any tests." No commercial labs for support in South Dakota. Expressed concern that South Dakota might be a "lower priority" just because it is "a smaller state" with fewer cases.

  • Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy reiterated the need for block grants and the need for swabs in Alaska.

  • New Mexico Governor Lujan Grisham noted the need for private sector responses to stand up laboratories, but also noted confusion / disruption in supply chain. Expressed a need to be able to quantify federal actions and orders of supplies - to avoid confusion and to help prioritize what is happening at the federal level. Reiterated the need for flexibility on Title 32 and to stand up combat support hospitals, if necessary. Strong support for an immediate focus on block grant carry overs to help states with unique needs.

  • North Dakota Governor and Chair of Western Governors Doug Burgum moved for an increase in bloc grants to help states move quickly and support small business.

  • Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak asked for help in recovery packages specifically related to the hospitality industry (noting that the strip had been shut down, displacing tens of thousands of hospitality workers).

  • Idaho Governor Brad Little expressed concern over ventilator prices. Asked for efficiency and speed from the FDA to give states standards or guidelines to help manufacture parts and provide patent protection for quicker access to the supply chain, especially ventilators and filters.

Key Takeaways

1. Most governors made a case for more flexibility, either in terms of block grants, or in terms of executing on recent federal guidelines related to the Coronavirus.

2. Several governors noted their concern over a losing "competition" between the state and federal government for access to the supply chain, especially for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).

3. Many governors expressed concern over breakdown in communication between States who had ordered tests and either CDC or FEMA in being able to provide the States with accurate and up-to-date numbers on available test kits.

Bottom Line

Bottom line: the March 19 meeting between the Trump Corona Virus Task Force and Governors illustrates - in a grim but effective way - the high stakes involved in doing federalism right. Effective communication between the federal government and the states is in the most genuine sense a matter of life and death.

Source: NBC News: "Watch: Trump speaks with governors from FEMA HQ on coronavirus response" accessed on March 19, at

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