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On a rainy day last April near Jackson, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer broke ground on a $10 million, long-term recovery home for opiate addicts called Andy’s Place. Standing to her far left, with a shovel of his own, was GOP Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey – who happens to represent Jackson.
"The crisis that we're confronting as a state is powerful,” Whitmer said that day.
“It does not discriminate, it does not abate. We must fight it. Andy's Place is going to be one of those places that changes lives and improves them for the better."
Five months later, Whitmer vetoed $750,000 in state funding for the project, a move that stopped the facility’s planned construction.
Whitmer's action has confounded those involved in the project who wonder whether the governor's veto constitutes hypocrisy following her words of support last spring, or simply an effort to embarrass the Republican leader in his district.
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Either way, they say, it's not a good look because it limits options for people battling substance abuse and addiction.
“Obviously the governor was trying to get the attention of the Senate Majority Leader,” said Chris Mitchell, executive vice president of the Michigan Health and Hospital Association, a trade industry group that represents Michigan’s community hospitals.
“This is just an unfortunate outcome of the political gamesmanship that is being played.”
The Andy’s Place project is named in memory of Andy Hirst, 24, who died nine years ago of a heroin overdose.
Mike Hirst, advocate for an opioid recovery project named for his son, said if the governor’s veto holds up, it “would mean more lives lost, more people who won’t be able to recover from this epidemic.”
Mike Hirst, Andy’s father, told Bridge he is baffled by Whitmer’s veto.
“I just can’t understand it,” said Hirst, named Citizen of the Year in 2016 by the Jackson Citizen Patriot for his advocacy for better understanding and treatment of opiate addiction. He has been a driving force behind the establishment of Andy’s Place.
“I am dismayed. This project should not be caught up in a political chess game. We are hoping that Governor Whitmer will find it in her heart to take another look at it. There are too many lives at stake.”
‘A misguided strategy’
In the grand scheme of 147 vetoes amounting to more than $900 million in cuts to the $59 billion state budget, a $750,000 veto may seem like pocket change in a much larger fight.
But it’s emblematic of the budgetary brinkmanship Whitmer is playing with GOP leaders of the House and Senate, in several instances involving projects that, like Andy’s Place, Whitmer had previously supported, or championed in her election campaign.
They include $375 million in one-time road funding (she is holding out for a longer-term and far more sizeable investment), $37 million for Pure Michigan advertising, $16.6 million for rural hospitals, $26 million for school career and technical education equipment and security funds, and $15 million earmarked for municipal airports to battle PFAS.
After touring the state for months to sell her roads plan, her proposed 45-cent gas tax hit a brick wall in the GOP-controlled Legislature. She initially threatened to veto any budget that did not include more than $2 billion in road funding, then retreated from budget negotiations to avoid a government shutdown.
Calling the budget produced by Republicans “a mess,” Whitmer then issued her string of vetoes and used a state Administrative Board to shift more than $600 million of Republican-backed funding within departmental budgets.
“I used my executive power to protect Michiganders’ public health and safety, access to healthcare, and classroom spending for our children,” Whitmer said in a statement.
If the cuts were a tactic to force Republicans to cave on road funding, veteran political analyst and former Republican lawmaker Bill Ballenger said it is one that Whitmer thus far is losing.
“She obviously calculated that what she was doing was so over the top and outrageous that it would drive Republicans back to the bargaining table. Apparently, it’s a misguided strategy and it’s blown up in her face,” Ballenger told Bridge.
Indeed, on Tuesday Republicans sent the governor a supplemental budget that attempts to restore many of the funds Whitmer vetoed, just the latest turn in Lansing political theater.
After issuing her vetoes, Whitmer said she remained “eager to negotiate with the Legislature.”
Shirkey, for his part, has spent much of the past week politely baiting the first-term governor. “If my governor thinks that she made a mistake with her red pen, she can let us know which ones she’d like to have back so we can reinstate those,” he said.
Ballenger said he believes Whitmer’s veto of funding for Andy’s Place is all about tweaking Shirkey.
“No question,” he said, “it is personal.”
Shirkey spokeswoman Amber McCann declined to say if Shirkey saw the veto that way.
“I'm not going to comment on speculation,” she said. “This is a cause the governor supports and, in fact, earlier this year she created an opioid task force to help bring us one step closer to finally ending the opioid epidemic in Michigan and keeping families safe.”
Whitmer spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said she “would not comment” on whether the governor’s Andy’s Place veto was tied to its location in Shirkey’s district.
“While the budgets have been signed, there is still more work to do,” Brown said. “It's important that differences are put aside and all parties get serious about mending some of the glaring holes that are in the budget that impact areas like public health and safety.”
Autism programs and military cemeteries
Republican pollster Steve Mitchell noted that Whitmer’s vetoes in Shirkey’s district go beyond Andy’s Place: Whitmer also vetoed $600,000 for traffic control at Michigan International Speedway.
“You can go through these vetoes and find a legislator’s name attached to it,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell drew a link between a Whitmer veto of more than $1 million in autism program funding and the GOP House Speaker Lee Chatfield, whom he noted has family members diagnosed as being on the spectrum.
“That goes beyond the pale,” Mitchell said of Whitmer’s cuts.
As it happens, Whitmer had also appeared last April before the Autism Alliance of Michigan to praise that organization’s work, according to Crain’s Detroit Business. That organization, too, lost funding through the governor’s vetoes.
Brown, the Whitmer spokeswoman, said Mitchell’s speculation that the autism veto was personally aimed at Chatfield was “ridiculous.”
She added: “I am not going to comment on that offensive assertion.”
Gideon D'Assandro, a spokesman for Chatfield, did not answer directly when asked by Detroit Free Press whether Chatfield felt his family was targeted by the autism veto.
"He thinks it's wrong to use any of these groups — students, veterans, drivers, people with autism — as political pawns to get her pet projects and a gas tax hike," D'Assandro said.
State Rep. Beau LaFave, R-Iron Mountain, a persistent critic of the Democratic governor, faults Whitmer for Upper Peninsula veto targets in his district that include $10.7 million for psychiatric services at critical access hospitals, $34.2 million for Medicaid patients at critical access hospitals and $2 million for the state’s first responder communications network.
What what really stood out to LaFave ‒ who has called Whitmer, among other things, “Emperor Whitmer,” for her ban on flavored e-cigarettes ‒ was the tiniest of cuts. Whitmer vetoed $2,500 earmarked for a feasibility study of a military cemetery he backs near Iron Mountain.
“You don’t accidentally line-item veto $2,500 for a veterans cemetery,” LaFave told Bridge. “That is blatantly political. You could find an accounting error of $2,500 in any one of these budgets.”
Waiting for construction orders
In the meantime, Jackson County resident Hirst said he remains hopeful Andy’s Place will be built soon - despite the impasse.
Plans call for a 42,000-square-foot space with 39 single units and a separate 13,000-square-foot space for families with 11 two-bedroom units. It is a collaboration among the Michigan State Housing Development Authority, Michigan drug courts – and until now – the governor’s office.
It is to be built around access to long-term recovery and housing supports, which experts say can be critical to recovery for those with opioid use disorder.
“We have a construction crew ready to go,” he said.
Hirst worked for years to see this project through – one way he said he could bring meaning from his son’s death.
Andy Hirst died in May 2010, after battling an opioid addiction for six years, one that began with oxycodone and ended with heroin, his father said. Shortly after, Hirst established Andy’s Angels, a nonprofit foundation that provides education on opiate abuse and raised funds for support for families and those suffering from addiction.
But Hirst said if the budget stalemate isn’t resolved soon, it could mean more lives lost to the opioid epidemic.
“We really need to get the footings in the ground before winter sets in,” he said. “This would mean a construction delay of six months, more lives lost, more people who won’t be able to recover from this epidemic.”