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Michigan Republicans say ‘the budget is done.’ Here’s what they really mean.

Lee Chatfield

LANSING — It’s been more than three weeks since Gov. Gretchen Whitmer approved Michigan’s $59 billion budget and, in the process, cut nearly $1 billion lawmakers had approved for a variety of Republican priorities

Several programs that lost funding — from rural police patrols and hospital funding to grants for the popular Pure Michigan tourism campaign — are feeling the effects of the cuts or will soon.

But even as negotiations continue with the Democratic governor, state Republican leaders keep repeating the same mantra: “The budget is done.” 

So, what does that mean? As Republican lawmakers have hinted before, that’s less a refusal to appropriate the money and more a statement on what needs to happen before they’re willing to do so: Rein in the governor’s ability to move money within departments without the input of the Legislature. 

Republicans are upset over Whitmer’s use of a rare maneuver to shift $625 million within state departments to better reflect her priorities earlier this month. The power, which a governor hasn’t used since 1991, comes through the state Administrative Board that Whitmer controls. The governor argued the shifts were necessary to fix problems in the budget, which were sent to her without her input — itself a rare move by the Legislature.

Now, GOP leaders say they can’t trust the governor won’t do it again, which makes them hesitant to send her new bills to spend the $1 billion she cut. 

“I cannot appropriate any more money and send it to the administration unless we have some real assurances on where that money will be spent,” Speaker of the House Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, said at a legislative panel event hosted by Dome Magazine and Oakland University on Thursday morning. 

Chatfield said “it would be a restoration of the balance of power” if there was “a cap on the amount of money that could be transferred in each department,” as he said there was in the 1970s and ’80s.

Whitmer, Chatfield and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey have met several times since the budget drama unfolded this month. Shirkey said he met with Whitmer on Wednesday and discussed the Administrative Board’s power, but that a meeting Thursday morning shied away from the topic.

There are “lots of ways” to change the board’s power, Shirkey told reporters Thursday, but “the how to me is less important than getting agreement on the goal.”

“The goal, I believe, is to ensure that a governor, any governor, still has the right to make unilateral transfers in a budget when necessary and amend it so that we preserve what the constitution clearly intends — that is for the Legislature to have a serious position on spending,” Shirkey said.

Whitmer wants the money she cut through line-item vetoes to be reappropriated for GPS trackers for parolees, literacy coaches and skilled trades training, among other things. 

Republican leaders see Whitmer’s use of the Administrative Board as gutting their power to appropriate money, which Senate Appropriations Chair Jim Stamas, R-Midland, said is “the larger elephant in the room.”

And as Rep. Jon Hoadley, D-Kalamazoo, put it Thursday morning, “the truth of the matter is the budget is not done... If the budget was done, there wouldn't be 25 supplementals sitting in the House and Senate.”

He’s referring to a number of bills introduced by both Republicans and Democrats to spend the money Whitmer cut from the budget. Those bills are referred to as “supplementals” because they’re supplementing the spending that’s already been approved in the main budget. 

The Republican supplementals would restore funding for charter schools, career and technical education, PFAS remediation at airports and isolated school districts, among other things. 

The supplementals introduced by Democrats and crafted in part by Whitmer would reinstate funding for veterans services, secondary road patrols, rural hospitals and more — many of which Republicans are also calling to be reinstated. Sen. Curtis Hertel, D-East Lansing, called the bills “an olive branch.”

But those bills haven’t moved, Republicans say, because they have no assurance they won’t be restructured like the main budget. 

“Until we can resolve that there should not be a lot of supplementals, there should be a solution for where we go,” Stamas said. 

Whitmer has said she wouldn’t support legislation to curb her ability to use the Administrative Board to move funds, though she may agree to not use the maneuver on the proposed supplementals. (“It’s a slow process” to convince her, Shirkey said Thursday.)

Spokespeople for Whitmer couldn’t be reached for comment Thursday. 

Republican officials have said “the budget is done” slogan is their way of noting that they’ve done their constitutional duty of sending a budget to the governor — supplemental spending negotiations are part of an ongoing appropriations process that occur every year, even in those without political standoffs. 

Rep. Shane Hernandez, R-Port Huron, said Thursday that one of the most overlooked stories of the budget process was how Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature worked together to pass the budget to Whitmer. 

Hertel countered: “The best story from the budget hasn’t been told yet, and it won’t be told until we’re done.”

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