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Michigan Gov. Whitmer to GOP: I’ll make a budget deal, but won’t cede powers

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer

LANSING –  Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer made clear Tuesday she won’t sign away gubernatorial power to end a budget stalemate, staking her position hours before House Republicans proposed a plan asking her to do just that.

The back-and-forth was the latest tussle in a power and process struggle that has delayed talks over a supplemental spending deal and shows little sign of letting up. 

"If you accept my offer to negotiate in good faith, this matter could all be resolved in a matter of hours," Whitmer wrote in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey of Clarklake and House Speaker Lee Chatfield of Levering. "If you decline, my administration is prepared to move forward making the hard decisions necessitated by the budget as it now stands."

Whitmer and GOP leaders both want to reverse some of the $947 million in line-item vetoes the governor issued after the Legislature sent her a $58.9 billion fiscal year 2020 budget developed without administrative input.

But first, Republicans want Whitmer to agree to rein in an obscure Administrative Board power she used to transfer $625 million in funds within department budgets and reshape the spending plan they had sent her. It’s why they keep saying “the budget is done" even though they’ve introduced more than 20 separate bills proposing to reverse several of her vetoes. 

Legislation proposed Tuesday by House Appropriations Chairman Shane Hernandez of Port Huron and Rep. Ben Frederick of Owosso would cap Administrative Board transfers at $200,000 in a single budget year, which Republicans say would allow for emergency executive maneuvers but preserve their constitutional power to appropriate state funds. 

“Our reforms would ensure a governor cannot eliminate funding for entire programs or start new ones without input from legislators – but a governor would still have the flexibility to address a shortage of staff or resources in key areas,” Frederick said in a statement.

Whitmer signed most of the GOP budget on Sept. 30 to avoid a government shutdown and push GOP leaders back to negotiations. But she’s faced backlash for several vetoes, including $1 million in planned spending for an Autism Navigator parental resources program, $13 million for rural sheriff road patrols and a $35 million student allowance increase for charter schools.

In her letter, Whitmer told GOP leaders she’d be happy to negotiate a deal that includes funding for “core public health and safety needs” within state departments. 

The governor also said she’d be willing to “rescind certain” Administrative Board transfers and would agree not to veto specific line items the GOP leaders might add. Whitmer also said she would not use her Administrative Board power on any future budget bills that are the product of good-faith negotiations.

“In other words, let’s negotiate a budget as our predecessors have always done,” she wrote. 

But Whitmer urged GOP leaders to drop what she called an attempt to "gut" the long-standing Administrative Board transfer power last used in 1991 by Republican former Gov. John Engler. It's an authority that has been around for almost a century, she noted.

"We all hold office for a prescribed number of years, and I will not spend my time here diminishing the office of the governor for me or any of my successors, Democrat or Republican," Whitmer said.

The written plea followed a Monday meeting between Whitmer, Shirkey and Chatfield, who have resumed regular talks despite a particularly contentious budget process during the state's first period of divided government in eight years.

GOP leaders did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Whitmer’s letter, but Chatfield spokesman Gideon D'Assandro said the trio had a “good” conversation Monday.

Shirkey sounded less optimistic in a Tuesday morning radio interview, telling WKHM in Jackson GOP leaders and Whitmer are "kind of at an impasse" over Administrative Board powers.

"We are meeting on a pretty frequent and regular basis right now... to try to work through this notion that where money has been appropriated for specific purposes, it needs to stay for those purposes and not get redirected unilaterally," Shirkey said.

The proposal from Hernandez and Frederick would cap Administrative Board transfers and also require the Legislature to send the governor a budget plan by July 1, well ahead of the Oct. 1 deadline mandated by the state constitution.

Republicans said their proposed transfer limit of $200,000 would roughly equal a threshold that had been in place from 1976 to 1984, adjusted for inflation. Lawmakers did not include a cap when they wrote the Budget and Management Act of 1984. 

In a statement, Hernandez accused Whitmer of “abusing the authority” of the Administrative Board and “hurting some of Michigan’s most vulnerable residents in the process. “

Republicans want to eliminate the transfer power, Whitmer wants to retain it, and “this proposal meets in the middle” by “retaining the State Administrative Board but building in protections for taxpayers and residents with proper oversight and accountability,” Hernandez said. 

Whitmer signed the Republican budget to avert the state's first partial government shutdown since 2009. But she used an unprecedented volume of line-item vetoes and Administrative Board transfers to reshape the spending plan in hopes of restarting negotiations.

After agreeing to suspend long-term road funding negotiations and temporarily drop her push for a gas tax hike, Whitmer rejected $375 million in one-time funding for road repairs and transferred another $25 million to support local bus and rail public transit projects. 

She also used line-item vetoes to eliminate the well-known Pure Michigan tourism ad campaign the GOP had funded and cut spending to support rural hospitals, a private college tuition program a county jail reimbursement program.

"There's clearly a lot of work to be done," House Minority Leader Christine Greig, D-Farmington Hills, told reporters Tuesday morning at the state Capitol.

"We're starting to see payments that may not be made and some additional pressure. Everyone should be willing to come to the table and talk about how we allocate those remaining dollars." 

Whitmer stressed urgency in her letter, noting lawmakers are only scheduled to meet six times this week and next before a fall recess that aligns with the start of the state’s traditional deer hunting season for deer. Beyond that, there are only nine additional session days scheduled this year. 

In what she called a show of "good faith," Whitmer told GOP leaders the Administrative Board has scheduled meetings for this Thursday and twice next week in order to "rescind any transfer, in whole or in part, that may be part" of any budget agreement.

The governor used spending transfers to secure funding for implementation of new Medicaid work rules championed by Republicans and to undo a GOP plan to withhold funding from the Department of Education until officials meet certain requirements, including publication of an A-F letter grade system for schools.

"At this moment, we have an opportunity to work together for the betterment of Michigan and prove to our citizens that divided government does not have to mean gridlock," Whitmer wrote. "Let's get to work."

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