Michigan Republicans want to rein in Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s budget power

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer discusses the state budget with reporters on Monday, Oct. 7, in Lansing. (Bridge photo by Jonathan Oosting)

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LANSING — Republican lawmakers are looking to rein in a rare budget power used by Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer as they resume contentious negotiations over 2020 state government spending plans.

Whitmer was the first governor since 1991 to shift funding without legislative approval through a panel comprising her appointees and allies, the State Administrative Board. The panel transferred $625 million as part of an aggressive response to GOP budgets that followed Whitmer’s line-item vetoes of nearly $1 billion.

The unilateral transfers angered Republicans who control both chambers of the Legislature and want a pledge from the governor — or legislation — to ensure she does not use the power in such sweeping fashion again. That ask could become a demand as Whitmer and GOP leaders renegotiate plans to spend the $947 million she vetoed. 

“It could be,” Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, told Bridge Magazine after concluding an hour-long budget meeting with Whitmer and House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, on Thursday. 

“It kind of depends on how things go.”

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Whitmer has little incentive to give up the administrative board power she used to reconfigure budgets she called “a mess.” But Sen. Tom Barrett, R-Charlotte, said Republicans “may be able to negotiate something that does that” as the governor bargains for legislative approval of her own spending priorities in new budget talks. 

“If she’s agreed to not use it in the future, then there would be no harm in her signing a bill to stipulate such a thing,” he told Bridge.

GOP leaders described their Thursday morning sit-down with the governor as “productive” but declined to discuss details. Asked if the private meeting qualified as a negotiation, Whitmer simply noted they plan to meet again Tuesday. 

“The good news is that the lines of communication are open,” the governor said. “And I think we’ll continue to work towards making progress.”

With the help of legislative Democrats, Whitmer made her own budget move Thursday by introducing supplemental spending bills to reappropriate around $475 million she vetoed from the budget.

The bills would reinstate funding for several programs she had cut in an attempt to spur new negotiations, including $34 million for rural hospitals, $1 million for the Autism Navigator hotline and website, $2 million in veteran services, $11 million for secondary road patrol, $31 million for literacy coaches and $100 million for state IT services. 

The proposal “fixes some of the structural problems that were in the original budgets and the things that were missing,” said Sen. Curtis Hertel, D-East Lansing, sponsor of the Democratic supplemental. 

“But it also is an olive branch,” he added. “It’s an attempt to actually start real conversations and show the governor’s willing to negotiate.”

Rep. Jon Hoadley, of Kalamazoo, the leading Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, is expected to introduce a version of the governor’s supplemental in the House. 

The Democratic supplemental includes $110 million for the governor’s proposed Michigan Reconnect program, which would provide scholarships for adults to pursue secondary education or skilled trades training, which has been supported by the state’s business leaders. 

The supplemental bills also appropriate $2 million to support the implementation of the new redistricting commission, a nonpartisan panel that is expected to draw Michigan’s political boundaries after the U.S. Census next year. 

The new panel is unpopular among Republicans, who have filed suit challenging the constitutionality of the commission. Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, has criticized the Legislature for not providing the panel with money to get up and running.

Whitmer’s spending proposal comes days after Republican leaders introduced more than 20 bills of their own to reverse line-item vetoes that Republican legislators say they have been hearing the most from constituents about. 

GOP leaders also hinted at the possibility of attempting to override some of Whitmer’s more unpopular vetoes, a move that would require some Democratic support to achieve a two-thirds majority in each chamber. 

Whitmer effectively controls the State Administrative Board, which has the authority to shift funding allocations with departments but not between them, a rare power first used by former Gov. John Engler and confirmed in a 1993 Michigan Supreme Court ruling. 

She used the board last week for a series of large-scale spending transfers, redirecting funds that had been approved by the Legislature for other purposes to support her priorities, including implementation of new Medicaid work rules and a lead and copper safety standard for drinking water. 

After their Thursday morning meeting, Republicans leaders would not say whether they asked Whitmer to give up her administrative board power or pledge not to use it in future budget years. 

Whitmer also demurred.

“That’s not something I’m ready to have any real conversation on,” the governor told reporters. “I’m not going to talk about anything that we discussed in the meeting today.”

Barrett, who chairs the Senate appropriations subcommittee on corrections, said the Legislature has a responsibility to protect its own power to control the purse strings of state government. 

If the governor is not willing to voluntarily give up administrative board powers, he suggested Republicans explore “other avenues,” including possible litigation. 

“We appropriate the money,” Barrett said. “That is our singularly largest responsibility that we have as a Legislature, and to me, if we don’t have the authority to appropriate money to the purposes we’ve directed, then we’ve lost a critical piece of that separation of powers balance between branches.”

Hertel said he supported Whitmer using all powers at her disposal because the GOP-led Legislature sent her a budget developed without her input, itself a rare move.  If Republicans want to curtail the governor’s Administrative Board authority, they should also be willing to make concessions to improve the process, he said.

“For example, if we don’t get a budget done by July 1, we say that we don’t get paid until we get a budget done so there’s some period of time where we have a responsibility to do our jobs,” Hertel suggested Thursday afternoon during a taping of “Off The Record” on WKAR-TV. 

“If we’re going to talk about the executive, we should also talk about where the Legislature failed in this and probably fix that legislatively as well.”

Talks between the first-term governor and GOP legislative leaders broke down last month amid a dispute over road funding. Whitmer wants to raise fuel taxes to “fix the damn roads” but had agreed to postpone long-term funding negotiations to focus on the budget and avoid a government shutdown. 

Republicans wanted to put $400 million in one-time funding into roads, an approach Whitmer opposed because it would drain general fund money she wanted to spend elsewhere. The GOP-led Legislature finalized the budget without administrative input, and Whitmer vetoed $375 million for roads and transferred the other $25 million to local bus and public transportation initiatives. 

“We’ve been using gimmicks to triage an infrastructure that is downright dangerous and getting more expensive by the day,” Whitmer said. “And so we really do need a long-term solution on roads that is dedicated to roads.”

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Comments

Matt
Thu, 10/10/2019 - 4:23pm

The Gov will never give up her executive board stunt. She isn't stupid. Suggesting such is a waste of ink. The idea that somehow a board of her appointees will give her a decesion different or independent from her wishes is laughable. The Republicans only choice is to take it to court and try for a different decesion from a different set of judges.

middle of the mit
Thu, 10/10/2019 - 7:25pm

Executive board stunt? This law was put into place in 1991. Do you know controlled the Governorship and legislature then? Engler was Governor. It was meant for him.

So why is it that when Democrat uses a law passed by Republicans, it then turns into a stunt?

And what is a court going to do? Overturn the law? The same law Republicans passed for themselves?

If that happens, does it say more about Gov Whitmer trying use a law or does it beat down on Republicans because they passed the law to use themselves?

Careful.

Matt
Fri, 10/11/2019 - 8:11am

Changes nothing not a law but an executive theft of legislative power. Take this back to the Mi Supreme court, there is no way this Executive Board stunt should be allowed to stand. The concept of line item vetoes is fine and dandy, this turns the concept of legislative appropriation on it's head and is a precedent you will regret. Unlike Democrats have shown recently, I'm perfectly fine calling fowl on Republicans and Democrats alike.

Bones
Fri, 10/11/2019 - 9:47am

You call foul from the utterly nonsense position of right libertarianism. That's why you don't get any respect or credence when your solution to the issues of the two corrupt capitalist parties is neo-feudalism

Kris
Fri, 10/11/2019 - 12:38pm

Presidents can't do line items, Governors shouldn't be able to also. She stripped some very important lines out of it purposely. She is acting like a spoiled rotten 2 yr old.

middle of the mit
Sat, 10/12/2019 - 10:05pm

What do you mean it changes nothing? Governor Whitmer is using the same law Governor Engler used. Why is it OK for him to use it and not her?

That is HYPOCRISY. Especially when that law was written specifically for him to use. Was Engler thieving executive power? Should every law he thieved from be overturned? Come on!! Is that what you want?

Why would I regret it? A precedent I will regret? It's YOUR DANG LAW! YOU USED IT FIRST! AND NOW COMPLAINING WHEN SOMEONE DOES TO YOU WHAT YOU DID TO THEM?

And now, Republicans have become the party of victim mentality!

The victim of their own law!!

I thought Republicans despised victim mentality.

Ohhh how much a Trump can change things!!!

Jeff
Tue, 10/15/2019 - 4:45pm

The law wasn't "written for Engler to use". The law on the State Administrative Board has been in existence since the 1920s. Engler was the first to take advantage of the law in many decades, but it wasn't "written for him" [your assertion is especially absurd because the Democrats who controlled the House in 1991 wouldn't have agreed to sacrifice that power to an incoming Republican Governor]

middle of the mit
Tue, 10/15/2019 - 7:45pm

Maybe you should go down about 5 posts and find the authors response to when this law was taken to the MI supreme court.

Jonathan Oosting
Fri, 10/11/2019 - 1:34pm

Thanks Jim. Gov. Engler did use the authority -- which is what prompted the case that went to the Michigan Supreme Court -- but he later ended up undoing most of the transfers after negotiating a deal with lawmakers.

Hmmm...

Might not have been written for him to use, but he WAS THE FIRST to use it. And he went to the MI Supreme court to enforce his executive power. And now you conservatives don't like the law that you went to the MI Supreme court to enforce for yourselves. And now you want to take that law back to the MI Supreme court hoping to undo a law the you took to the same Supreme court to defend during Englers term.

What I said stands!

Bernadette
Fri, 10/11/2019 - 9:22am

Well said. The hypocrisy in this state is palpable, and there is such a blindness about what has happened over the past 20 years under a dominated Republican legislature. You can see their approach is divide and conquer. Whitmer is doing her part to break this gridlock and show the Republicans it can't just be their way. No compromise, no deal.

Enough is enough

Bob Balwinski
Fri, 10/11/2019 - 11:01am

Middle of the mit…...you nailed it!!!

Wendy
Fri, 10/11/2019 - 3:49pm

When Engler did it there was no problem, but now a Democrat does it and holey shit this needs to change! Hippocrits.

Bob Dunn
Fri, 10/11/2019 - 9:27am

Once again this dynamic shows how hypocritical some of the Republicans are. What is good for the goose is good for the gander.

Jim
Fri, 10/11/2019 - 9:28am

Note to Bridge: This article asserts that using the State Administrative Board to reallocate funding within departments was first used by former Governor Engler back in 1991.

"Whitmer effectively controls the State Administrative Board, which has the authority to shift funding allocations with departments but not between them, a rare power first used by former Gov. John Engler and confirmed in a 1993 Michigan Supreme Court ruling."

It's true that the authority was established under Engler, but he never actually used it.

Jonathan Oosting
Fri, 10/11/2019 - 1:34pm

Thanks Jim. Gov. Engler did use the authority -- which is what prompted the case that went to the Michigan Supreme Court -- but he laer ended up undoing most of the transfers after negotiating a deal with lawmakers. 

Jim
Thu, 10/17/2019 - 10:28am

Thanks for the clarification and correction, Jonathan. I hadn't realized that Engler had actually exercised the authority.

Wo Dat in the Thumb
Fri, 10/11/2019 - 10:35am

The GOP invented this board to give Republican Governor John Engler more power but want to cry and claim this is an abuse of executive power when the current Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer uses it to beat them at their own game. Maybe gerrymandering of political maps, passage of legislation with funding attached to over-ride citizen initiatives that were passed at the ballot, and other means of self-serving perversion and manipulation used by the GOP to undermine the democratic process should all be illegal. Quit your whining you bunch of hypocrites. You were outsmarted and outplayed at your own game.

Jeff
Tue, 10/15/2019 - 4:50pm

This simply is not true. The Ad Board statute has existed since the 1920's. Engler attempted to use the Ad Board to make a much smaller scale group of transfers to satisfy a budgetary reduction measure that had been signed by his predecessor Jim Blanchard. He pulled back on the proposal after there was a deal on the overall budget. He and the House leadership (then Democratic) agreed to leave one small DNR transfer in place to allow for a court test of whether the 1920-era law was superseded by later laws giving transfer power to the Appropriations Committees. That case spread out over 2 years and the Governor's power was upheld.

Engler (nor Granholm, nor Snyder) did not use that power to completely rearrange budgets. Whitmer has done so. Given that the administrative board statute bars the transfer of General Fund dollars "for any purpose other than that designated by the Legislature", I'm guessing there will be a court case challenging the Whitmer transfers, at least the ones involving General Fund dollars (which was the bulk of them).

Jeff Grey
Fri, 10/11/2019 - 11:26am

Pure Michigan has been a boom for Michigan Small business. This budget item gets enormous returns, not unlike preschool education. Please think harder when you consider cutting effective investment.

EB
Fri, 10/11/2019 - 4:37pm

Looks like Whitmer learned a few things during her time in the Republican Michigan Senate: hardball.

It's bare knuckle politics: hey Reds, you want something, well, OK, so what are you willing to give in exchange?

Don't quite understand why folks are getting all riled about business as usual.

Brian Szymborski
Sat, 10/12/2019 - 4:42pm

This completely blew up in her face!

Adrien Nicolas Jr
Mon, 10/14/2019 - 7:58am

This is disappointing that our legislators are fighting like children. It is clear to me that the entire leadership (House, Senate and Governor) is trying to advance their own agendas instead of representing the people they serve. As a state worker, I am proud to serve the people of Michigan. This type of behavior is just embarrassing.