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Michigan GOP sets up showdown with Whitmer, finalizing $4.2B COVID relief plan

Michigan capitol
Michigan Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey and officials with Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer say they anticipate agreement on a budget in the next few weeks. (Shutterstock photo)

LANSING — Michigan’s Republican-led Legislature is moving forward with its own $4.25 billion COVID-19 response plan now supported by several Democrats despite provisions that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer could veto.

The package, approved Tuesday evening by the Senate and set for a House vote on Wednesday, would authorize the state to spend about $3.45 billion of the roughly $5 billion in federal funding sent to the state as part of a December stimulus package.

Whitmer, a Democrat, proposed a larger $5.6 billion spending plan in January. She has pressured the Legislature to release all available money to help the state fight a pandemic that is linked to more than 15,000 Michigan deaths since March 2020.

But Republicans have spent weeks developing an alternative, and they’ve tried to use the federal largesse as leverage to force policy concessions from the Democratic governor, who they contend has been too strict with COVID-19 regulations.

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The final package, as negotiated between House and Senate Democrats but not the Whitmer administration, would authorize the state to spend $110 million on vaccine distribution, $208 million on COVID testing, another $347 million for future testing needs, $150 million to continue a temporary pay boost to direct care workers and $600 million for enhanced food assistance benefits, money that Democrats have sought.

The plan includes another $1.8 billion in federal funding for schools to resume in-person learning, prepare summer school programs and develop other remediation programs to help students catch up from any losses during remote learning.

“This plan responsibly and effectively puts billions of dollars in federal COVID-19 funding to use meeting our state’s most critical needs — getting more people the lifesaving vaccines, increasing testing and supporting our struggling families and job providers,” Senate Appropriations Chair Jim Stamas, R-Midland, said in a statement.

But the legislation links some of the funding to provisions Whitmer will surely oppose and could use her line-item veto power to strike, leaving some additional federal money on the table for future negotiations.

The provisions Whitmer may oppose include:

  • $347 million in federal funding for contact tracing and lab capacity is contingent upon Whitmer signing a separate Senate bill to prohibit the state from extending public health orders beyond 28 days without legislative approval. She has criticized the proposal in the past.
  • $841 million of the funding for K-12 schools is contingent upon Whitmer signing a separate House bill that would prohibit the state from closing schools or sporting events in the event of outbreaks. Local health officials could do so instead, but only if coronavirus case counts reached certain thresholds.

Senate Democrats saw the plan as an improvement over the version Republicans approved last week, and most ended up voting for the new spending bills despite opposing the proposed policy concessions, said Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr., D-East Lansing.

The bills passed in two separate votes by 34-1 and 31-4, with bipartisan support.

The proposal includes more money for things like vaccines and food assistance, “and I’m not going to vote against those things because I don’t like some political game they’re playing,” Hertel said.

“That can be sorted out in a different way, which I’m sure you can figure out,” he added, referencing potential line-item vetos by Whitmer.

Stamas, the GOP budget chair, acknowledged he does not expect the governor to sign the full spending plan into law. “I think that she will definitely have issues” with some of the provisions, he told Bridge Michigan.

The proposal now awaiting final passage in the House does not include controversial Senate GOP language that would have prohibited the state health department from using race or socioeconomic status as factors in its vaccine distribution formula.

It does, however, including another controversial provision that would require health providers to inform recipients if a vaccine was developed using fetal tissue derived from an abortion, even if that happened decades earlier.

House officials who pushed for the language say it would not apply to Pfizer or Moderna vaccines but would be required for new Johnson & Johnson doses.

Republicans opposed to Whitmer’s initial $5.6 billion coronavirus relief package argued they did not want to simply sign a “blank check.” 

They’ve maintained her COVID-19 regulations are too tough on businesses, even after Whitmer on Tuesday announced the state is relaxing indoor capacity limits for restaurants, entertainment centers and other facilities.

“The governor continues to claim her decisions are based on data and science, but she refuses to actually share the data or science she’s using,” Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, said in a statement. “Without transparency, her orders look less like science and more like control.”

Whitmer, in turn, has blasted the GOP-led Legislature for holding up federal funding sent to the state by Congress and former Republican President Donald Trump.

“Washington didn't send us money to sit on it, they sent it to us because people need it,” Whitmer said earlier Tuesday. “They sent it to us because it's crucial to economic re-engagement and protecting public health is crucial for our seniors and for our students alike and small businesses too.”

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