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Michigan GOP says Whitmer has ‘emasculated’ them, up ante in fight over COVID

Gretchen Whitmer
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer used her line item veto powers to strip a handful of measures from a stimulus package — worth at least $2.3 billion — that will increase vaccinations and provide aid to schools. Another $1.2 billion of the aid is in limbo. (Bridge file photo)

LANSING — An ongoing power struggle in Lansing showed no signs of letting up Wednesday, as Senate Republicans rejected a series of appointments by Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the House GOP continued to use COVID relief funding for schools as a bargaining chip. 

Whitmer is urging the Legislature to approve a pandemic response plan that would authorize the state to spend more than $5 billion in federal funding. 

But Republicans, who contend Whitmer has shut them out of the COVID-19 policy making process, are using the limited “tools” they have to fight what they consider overly onerous regulations, including ongoing restaurant capacity limits and a ban on contact high school sports. 

“What other options do we have at this point to plead our case for our people whose voices continued to be ignored?” said state Sen. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan. “Where’s the balance at the bargaining table? It’s gone. It’s been abrogated, emasculated, taken away.”

Wednesday was at least the second time in two months McBroom likened Whitmer's relationship to the Legislature to emasculation. In December, he complained the governor was "neutering" lawmakers by refusing to work with them. 

Last week, Senate Republicans rejected 11 individual Whitmer appointees. On Wednesday, they added five new names to that list, rejecting her picks for various university and industry boards. They are: 

  • Andrea Dickson – Michigan Technological University Board of Trustees
  • Jason Morgan – Northern Michigan University Board of Trustees
  • Mikyia Aaron – Grand Valley State University Board of Trustees
  • Noreen Myers – Grand Valley State University Board of Trustees
  • Gabriella Abel – Board of Cosmetology

Democrats blasted Republicans for the move, arguing that the appointees at least deserved a hearing on their qualifications and merits. 

“What you need to do is work with us, work with the governor,” Sen. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, said in a plea to his GOP colleagues. “Let’s try to work together to serve our people rather than continue this toxic vortex of politics and acrimony.”

House Republicans on Wednesday advanced a COVID-19 spending plan that would allocate about $3 billion of the roughly $5 billion in federal relief funds available to the state, arguing they do not want to simply hand Whitmer a “blank check.”

The House GOP plan seeks to force Whitmer into a major policy concession: Under legislation advanced to the floor, roughly $2 billion in federal and state funding for K-12 schools would be contingent upon the governor signing a separate bill that would prohibit her state health department from shutting down schools or sporting events because of the pandemic.

Instead, only local health departments could make those emergency closure decisions, and only if the community has hit certain thresholds for case counts, testing positivity rates and hospital capacity. If the local rate for positivity tests was less than 10 percent over a 14-day period, the health department couldn’t close a school even if there was an outbreak in the building. 

Democrats have accused House Republicans of holding federal funds “hostage” to undermine Whitmer’s authority. The GOP end game is unclear because Whitmer would almost certainly veto the House spending plan should it reach her desk without further negotiations. 

"We’re not going to be distracted by petty partisan games,” Whitmer spokesperson Bobby Leddy said in a statement.  

“The governor is focused on achieving the state’s goal of equitably vaccinating 70 percent of Michigan adults as soon as possible so we can get our kids back in school safely, return to a strong economy, and get back to normal day-to-day activities. Michigan families, students, and small businesses are counting on the Legislature to stop the partisan games and pass a robust recovery plan that doesn’t block badly-needed resources for vaccines and classrooms.”

The competing spending plans proposed by Whitmer and House Republicans would each provide funding for vaccine distribution, COVID-19 testing and different forms of support for businesses impacted by pandemic regulations. But the House plan would only allocate a fraction of the funding up front, requiring additional negotiations later in the year. 

House Democrats on the Appropriations Committee on Wednesday proposed a series of amendments to boost the spending plan to reflect Whitmer’s proposal, including pandemic relief funding and an unrelated $5 million to install metal detectors and enact a full gun ban at the Michigan Capitol. 

Republicans rejected each amendment in a party-line vote, and Democrats ended up voting against the budget bills in committee. 

“Legislative Democrats continue to do the governor’s bidding – seeking to release federal funds with no accountability or oversight of how the money is spent, and attempting to include cash for pet projects that have nothing to do with COVID-19,” House Appropriations Chair Thomas Albert, R-Lowell, said in a statement after the panel vote. 

Whitmer’s plan would immediately authorize $661 million in federal funding for a program designed to help lower-income households who are unable to pay their rent or utilities during the COVID-19 pandemic. The House GOP plan would spend only $165 million of those funds. 

Groups representing advocates for affordable housing and schools urged the GOP to approve the spending quickly Unlike other federal funding allocations, the rental assistance money is time sensitive, and some must be returned if it isn’t spent by September. 

School groups, meanwhile, say they need to know their funding so they can begin planning to implement new safety precautions for when students return full-time and develop summer school programs to address learning losses."

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