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Whitmer to GOP: Work with me to spend Michigan’s billions from COVID stimulus

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced a new plan Thursday that would loosen state pandemic rules as more people get vaccinated against COVID-19. (Bridge file photo)

May 11: Fun for Michigan governments: How to spend $11 billion in federal stimulus

LANSING — Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Monday invited Republicans in the state Legislature to help her devise a plan to spur “transformational change” in Michigan by spending billions of dollars of federal stimulus funding. 

Whitmer offered few specific ideas but pointed to several areas of potential compromise, including investments in child care, business development and a public health care system whose shortcomings were exposed by COVID-19.

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“And finally, we got to keep fixing the damn infrastructure,” the governor said in a Zoom call with reporters. 

“We have a real opportunity to give our state's businesses and workers some juice. So let’s take it.”

The olive branch approach marks a shift for Whitmer, who in January proposed a specific $5.6 billion COVID relief plan and then spent weeks pressuring GOP lawmakers to enact it. They rebuffed her and approved their own alternative plan, which she partially vetoed in March.

The dispute left more than $2 billion in federal funding unspent, and Michigan is poised to receive another $5.7 billion under the stimulus plan signed in March by President Joe Biden.  There’s also $3.9 billion that will flow to Michigan schools, provided Whitmer and lawmakers agree on a plan to send it to districts.

The stimulus money gives Michigan officials a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” to not only rebuild the state’s economy and meet the immediate needs of residents, but to think about investments that could benefit the state for years, Whitmer said. 

“This is a moment that we have to meet for the sake of the people of this state, for the sake of the businesses in this state, for the sake of the long-term economic recovery of the state,” she said. “This is something that will outlast my tenure in state government or anyone who’s currently in the Legislature.”

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey’s office welcomed the invitation but criticized Whitmer for offering it through the media.

"If it is the governor’s honest intention to work with legislative leaders, perhaps she should have first brought her ideas to them rather than, once again, trying to railroad the legislative process through the press,” said Shirkey spokesperson Abby Walls. “But we are glad to start productive negotiations with the governor’s office without having to guess where her priorities lie."

Whitmer and the Republican-led Legislature have spent the past year feuding over the administration’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

House GOP Appropriations Chair Thomas Albert said in March that he would not negotiate with the Whitmer administration until the governor agreed to negotiate public health orders, which she has not done.

In a Monday statement, Albert said Republicans are developing their own plans for stimulus funding, promising to help Michigan families, job providers and students as Michigan emerges from the pandemic.

“I appreciate reading the governor’s press release about her key priorities — the House plan will move beyond broad ideas and will offer concrete solutions to move Michigan forward,” Albert said. 

Whitmer has resisted imposing new economic restrictions despite the worst COVID-19 surge in the nation, and House Speaker Jason Wentworth last week urged her to also lift all remaining regulations— including a mask mandate and restaurant capacity limits.

The relationship with lawmakers is not irreparably damaged, however, Whitmer said Monday. 

“I don't think it's ever too far gone,” she told reporters. “It doesn't mean we're gonna agree on everything, but it's our job to find common ground on the big stuff.”

Like the $4.4 billion in new federal funding heading to local governments across Michigan from the stimulus, the $5.7 billion earmarked for the state government comes with few strings attached. 

There’s only one major caveat: Michigan can’t use the money to cut state taxes.

Some of the allowable uses include: 

  • COVID-19 assistance: State and local governments can create assistance programs for residents,  businesses, nonprofits and industries impacted by the pandemic. 
  • Premium pay: The state and locals can provide premium pay to government employees who performed “essential work” during the pandemic. That could mean a pay boost of up to $13 per hour, totaling a maximum of $25,000 per employee.  
  • Infrastructure: Governments can make “necessary investments” in water, sewer, or broadband infrastructure. Notably, the plan does not allow major spending on road construction or repair.
  • Fill budget holes: Governments can use the funding to replace money lost because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Whitmer suggested spending some of the stimulus on childcare programs could help “employers and families alike,” and she told reporters her administration is interested in creating a “small business accelerator” program to provide startup capital and support for entrepreneurs who are looking to start new companies. 

With $3.9 billion also available for Michigan schools, the governor said it could be important to spend on things like academic recovery programs given the pandemic learning loss associated with remote instruction. 

But she declined to propose any dollar figures, or speak with any level of specificity. 

“We want to keep this an open opportunity for us to negotiate and find some common ground with the Legislature,” Whitmer said.  “This is what our priorities are. These are the values that we embrace, It's about equity. It’s about recovery. It’s about transformational change and sustainability.”

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