Scrapping Whitmer fuel tax, Senate OKs budget with smaller bump for roads, schools
Lansing — Michigan’s Republican-led Senate on Wednesday approved a $58.2 billion spending plan for fiscal year 2020, forging ahead with the budget despite a veto threat by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who wants to include a “real” plan to fix the state’s crumbling roads.
The Senate budget proposes $971.7 million in new spending, but most of that is restricted federal Medicaid funding. The plan would increase funding for roads and K-12 schools, but by significantly less than desired by the governor, who has proposed a 45-cent fuel tax increase to pay for extra spending.
The Senate transportation budget includes $132 million in accelerated funding for local road agencies and is based on “actual, real dollars,” said Appropriations Chairman Jim Stamas, R-Midland.
Republicans have scoffed at Whitmer’s fuel tax proposal, which she unveiled in March. Senate and House leaders have vowed to present alternative plans for long-term road funding bumps but have not yet done so.
“Until we actually have the revenues, I think we have to move forward with a real budget with real revenue, and that is exactly what the Senate has put forward,” Stamas said.
The Senate budget proposes a $410 million funding increase for K-12 classrooms, including $235 million to pay for a per-pupil funding increase of between $120 and $180 per district.
That’s less than the $507 million Whitmer had proposed to send schools under a new weighted formula that would have provided extra funding for kids with more costly educational needs, including at-risk, career tech and economically disadvantaged students.
Democrats opposed the School Aid spending bill, which passed in a narrow 21-17 vote.
“We would give the governor’s budget an A,” said Sen. Rosemary Bayer, D-Beverly Hills. “This proposal falls a bit lower, like maybe a D for deficient on structure. It doesn’t address the inequities in our system today.”
The GOP plan includes controversial budget cuts for Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson’s office, Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office and the Department of Civil Rights. Senate Republicans are also proposing financial penalties for Michigan counties that fail to fully cooperate with detainment requests by federal immigration authorities.
Whitmer’s budget plan relies on her $2.5 billion fuel tax hike proposal, which Republicans have summarily rejected as unrealistic and unpopular. The tax would generate $1.9 million for roads and free up other money for other priorities, including K-12 schools.
The East Lansing Democrat on Tuesday challenged legislative Republicans to “get off the dime and get moving on actually fixing the damn roads in the state of Michigan.”
Crumbling roads are the top issue facing the state, Whitmer argued “and there is crickets at the Capitol right now on that front. I put (out) a real plan to solve it.”
Senate Republicans are “perfectly willing” to lead on road funding, but Whitmer’s fuel tax is not fully baked, Sen. Ken Horn argued Wednesday.
“I feel as if the governor invited the people of Michigan to a fancy dinner and slapped a big, raw, wet turkey in the middle of the road and said there you go, you take it from here,” Horn said.
The Frankenmuth Republican suggested the Senate is throwing that turkey back in the oven to let it bake a little longer while it continues with other work.
But “the people have been waiting on that turkey since 2015,” countered Sen. Curtis Hertel, D-East Lansing. “Maybe you forgot to defrost it."
Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, has said the upper chamber may be ready to unveil some longer-term road funding ideas by the end of May. He’s targeting $1.3 billion in additional spending, not the $2.5 billion Whitmer is seeking by 2021.
The Republican-led Legislature approved a $1.2 billion road funding plan in 2015, and the Senate budget would fully implement that plan in 2020 by dedicating an extra $132 million in general fund dollars a year ahead of schedule.
The Senate transportation budget approved Wednesday does not deviate significantly from the version Whitmer's office said she would veto last month because it does not include more road funding.
All told, the Senate is proposing $5.1 billion in transportation spending for 2020, up from $3.6 billion in 2011 and $117 million over the current year but down $647 million from Whitmer’s proposal.
The House is beginning to advance its own budget bills, setting up what could be months of negotiations between the chambers and administration. The Michigan Constitution requires officials to approve a balanced budget by Oct. 1.
“I enjoy turkey,” Stamas told reporters after the budget votes. “I look forward to a very nicely baked turkey when the governor signs the budget.”