Making sound public policy is challenging even when you have all the information. It now has become immeasurably more difficult by all the unknowns presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, said Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson on the latest episode of Princeton’s “We Roar” podcast.
“There's just no playbook for what we're dealing with,” said Johnson, a 2003 Princeton graduate alumnus, who earned his MPA from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. “This is like starting a race that someone tells you, you know, on your mark, get set, go, and doesn't tell you how far you got to run and when the race is going to end.”
The uncertainty around the disease — for instance, knowing when a vaccine will be available — will make going to make going back to normal very difficult, Johnson said.
Like most major cities, Dallas is faced with not only a health crisis, but an economic crisis. Dallas likely will have a $25 million budgetary shortfall from sales taxes alone in its current fiscal year, Johnson said. He projects a possible shortfall of up to $140 million next year.
“Those are big numbers for a municipality,” he said. “That really will impact our ability to do the things that people in Dallas have come to expect their city government to do.”
Johnson has been advocating in his state’s capitol and in Washington, D.C., not simply for relief funds, but for more flexible regulations regarding how the money can be used.
“There's a lot of strings attached to it, in terms of us only being able to use it in certain very, very narrow, specific, COVID-related ways,” he said. “We need to be able to use money we get to just simply plug holes in the budget.”
Robust, nationally led and locally implemented testing for the coronavirus will be key not only to getting a handle on the pandemic, but also for getting people out of their homes, so they can return to work and reinvigorate the economy, he said.
“Testing is, it's just critical to understanding where the virus is at any moment in time and how it's spreading and where,” he said. “And we're just not getting the testing done that we need to get done to be able to, I think, progress too much more quickly in reopening our economy here.”
In spite of the difficulties, Johnson expressed confidence in his city’s ability to recover.
“I think what makes me hopeful is we've been, up to now, relatively speaking, successful with what we've been trying to do,” he said. “And I think that Dallas is the kind of town that's going to bounce back from this as quickly as anybody in the country.”