Michigan House Republicans unveiled their own COVID-19 recovery plan on Wednesday, using the proposal to blast Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and threaten to withhold billions in federal funds unless the administration gives up pandemic powers.
Specifically, the House wants the governor and state health department to give up the authority to ban in-person school or sports in response to a health emergency, transferring that power to local health departments. Although Whitmer and the state health department issued orders through authority granted to the executive by previous legislatures, lawmakers continue to try and grab that power back from the governor’s office.
“I have reviewed the governor’s budget request and it is off the mark by a wide margin,” House Appropriations Committee Chairman Thomas Albert, R-Lowell, said in a news release.
“The governor’s plan is focused on corporate giveaways and growing government. Our plan will provide hope that people might still have a livelihood. Her plan has talking points about supporting summer school – our plan actually puts forth funding to help schools make it a reality.”
The governor supports students returning to school in person by March 1. Her recovery plan also included a request for lawmakers to reinstate a law that offers incentives for businesses that relocate to or expand in Michigan.
Business groups thanked House Republicans for the proposal but education organization blasted efforts to tie federal aid to other legislation.
The lawmakers also initially would provide only $22 million in federal funds to speed up vaccination efforts, despite repeatedly criticizing Whitmer and her administration for the rocky rollout.
The $3.2 billion plan is more than $2 billion less than a plan presented by Whitmer recently. But the House plan also relies heavily on federal funds already approved and allocated for Michigan to speed up the COVID-19 vaccination efforts, increase testing and otherwise battle the pandemic.
Albert argues the governor cannot be trust to use these funds in a suitable fashion. In addition to bartering with federal education funds, his plan would only allow the state to receive its full allotment of COVID-19 funding “when they are needed.”
“The governor simply wants a blank check to continue a broken vaccine rollout strategy. Our plan requires transparency and accountability, forcing the administration to start delivering results. It’s in everyone’s best interests for the Legislature to be heavily involved in the state’s COVID-19 recovery plan – and we’re getting involved,” Albert said.
Although Congress already sent billions in relief to the state, it falls on the Legislature to formally distribute those funds.
The House did not immediately release specific details on how exactly funds would be allocated. Key components of the House plan include:
- About $2.1 billion for schools. This is essentially the same amount as the governor’s plan. It aims to help cover costs for summer school, after- or before-school programs and “financial incentives” for certain teachers and staff.
- However, this funding comes at a price. According to an overview of the plan, the funds are “contingent upon approval of a law moving power to close in-person learning and sports activities away from the governor’s administration to local health departments, which would have that authority following health metrics.”
- This is a clear response to state health orders issued in November that temporarily banned in-person classes for high school and college students, barred indoor dining and stopped some high school athletics.
- The state has rolled back almost all of those restrictions, with restaurants allowed to start serving some diners indoors starting Monday. However, indoor contact sports remain on hiatus for several more weeks.
- The plan appears to require regular updates from the governor that would show why more federal funds are needed before lawmakers distribute them.
- According to a news release, “This new plan goes beyond that with an additional initial investment of $22 million for vaccine distribution, and $144 million for COVID testing. Other resources will be held in reserve for when they are needed.”
Business and food benefits
- Both the House and Whitmer want to allocate additional funds to help businesses and families in need. They each appear to rely on federal money to help with food and rental assistance, along with similar benefits.
- The new proposal also includes a $415 million grant program for “restaurants and other businesses crippled by the governor’s economic shutdown orders.”
In a statement, Whitmer Communications Director Tiffany Brown said the governor is “pleased to see that House Republicans are embracing the key elements” of her own recovery plan.
“Governor Whitmer is ready and eager to work with Republicans in the legislature to pass a bipartisan economic recovery plan that supports our small businesses and helps get families back on their feet,” Brown said.
“It is also crucial that we pass a plan that helps vaccinate our educators and puts more dollars into classrooms so we can get our kids back in school safely while staying focused on protecting public health. This is not the time for partisan games. It’s time to get to work.”
The National Federation of Independent Businesses heralded the proposal, specifically highlighting the legislative maneuver to strip authority from the governor as the key component of the proposal.
“It is time to remove the obstacles imposed by the governor, and the agencies under her direct control, that are hindering the ability of small business to return Michigan to the prosperity that existed before the coronavirus pandemic,” said Charlie Owen, state director in Michigan.
“The most important part of that objective will be to restore the rightful role of the legislature in policy making and governance.”
Brian Calley, president of the Small Business Association of Michigan, previously thanked Whitmer for components of her recovery plan. But he was effusive in his praise for the proposal during a legislative hearing Wednesday morning.
“It is the strongest, most substantial pro-small business statement that we have seen out of state government so far, by far,” Calley said.
“The components of it directly impact and address the ramifications that so many small businesses are facing because they have carried the majority of the economic burden of the broader public good of suppressing the pandemic and the virus spread.”
Tina Kerr, head of the Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators, thanked House Republicans for recognizing the needs of schools and students but asked that they not use federal money as a bargaining chip.
“The debate among adults about separation of powers and decision-making authority should not hold hostage these desperately needed funds for our schools and, ultimately, Michigan’s children,” Kerr said.
Robert McCann, executive director of the K-12 Alliance — an organization representing school superintendents in Genesee, Macomb, Oakland, St. Clair and Wayne counties — was more blunt.
“The Michigan Legislature has only one job as it relates to this funding: allocate it. Holding critical school funding hostage as part of a political squabble goes beyond ugly partisan politics: it is immoral and fundamentally unacceptable,” said Robert McCann, executive director for the organization.
“Students, teachers and staff have faced far too much during this pandemic to now have to worry about becoming pawns in a grossly miscalculated political stunt.”
The House plan is the latest front in the longstanding power battle between the Legislature and Whitmer. The governor and her administration argue they are taking the emergency steps needed to keep people safe — actions lawmakers have failed to take.
Republicans argue the governor has acted unilaterally, stating her orders exceed her authority and unnecessarily hurt businesses and students. They passed bills last legislative session to repeal an emergency powers law deemed unconstitutional by the Michigan Supreme Court and tried to curb the authority of the health department director to issue crisis health orders. Whitmer vetoed both bills.
Earlier this month, the governor announced her own COVID-19 plan. The bill would require approximately $575 million in state funds, along with roughly $5 billion in the already approved federal funds, to fight the pandemic and address a wide array of other issues.
Albert argues his plan is more targeted. It does not include $5 million for Capitol Security — Whitmer’s plan included the funding so the Legislature could effectively ban all guns in the state Capitol. The House plan also does not include “corporate giveaways for new job creation” —Whitmer’s plan called on lawmakers to reinstate a law offering public incentives for businesses expanding in or relocating to Michigan.
For months, Whitmer called on the GOP-controlled Legislature to have a larger role in fighting the pandemic. But legislative leaders balked at several of her requests, including passing a mask mandate and permanently expanding unemployment benefit eligibility to 26 weeks.
However, the governor and lawmakers did work together in August to craft a broad education plan that garnered widespread bipartisan support. The bill provided additional funding to help school districts determine the learning model that worked best for them.
Whitmer is expected to discuss aspects of her plan to fight COVID-19 when she delivers her State of the State address Wednesday evening.
Contact Dave Boucher at [email protected] or 313-938-4591. Follow him on Twitter @Dave_Boucher1.