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

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has faced criticism for weeks over her handling of a mid-March trip to Florida on a jet whose owners have business interests with the state. (Bridge Michigan file photo)

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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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