Lawmakers, Whitmer agree to $29M spending plan

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
The Michigan Capitol.

Lansing — Michigan will spend more to compensate wrongly convicted prisoners, prepare for the 2020 U.S. Census, investigate allegiations of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy and implement voter-approved laws under a $28.8 million supplemental budget bill headed to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's desk. 

The Michigan Senate on Tuesday unanimously approved the current-year spending plan, which is supported by the Whitmer administration and was approved last week by the state House in a 107-2 vote.

The Democratic governor is expected to sign the proposal, which also reauthorizes a series of pet projects first approved late last year by the Republican-led Legislature, including $2.5 million to help an aerospace association develop a low-orbit satellite-launch site and command center in Michigan.

As part of negotiations, Whitmer requested pork barrel spending reform language that will shed more light on so-called “enhancement grants” requested by individual legislators.

The spending plan includes $5 million in new funding to support U.S. Census outreach to ensure accurate population counts in rural and urban areas, a critical step given population-based funding formulas for many federal programs. 

Whitmer on Tuesday signed a separate executive order creating a new Complete Count Committee to focus on boosting Census participation.

Lawmakers also approved $635,000 in additional funding for Attorney General Dana Nessel’s ongoing investigation into clergy sexual abuse within the Catholic Church,which so far has led to criminal charges against five priests who are or had served in three dioceses.

The investigation allocation is less than the $2 million Whitmer had initially proposed and specifies that Nessel can only use the new funding for document management and victim advocacy services.

The spending plan includes $3 million to help residents and local communities prepare for the state’s new lead rule that will be the toughest of its kind in the nation and reduce allowable levels from 15 parts per billion to 12 ppb by 2025.

Whitmer had pushed for $37.5 million in current-year grants to help local governments replace lead pipes and comply with the new rule initiated by former Gov. Rick Snyder in the wake of the Flint water contamination crisis.

The scaled-back plan approved by the GOP-led Legislature does not include the pipe replacement grants. Instead, it includes $1.7 million to supply water filters to low-income families with children who reside in areas with high lead levels.

The Michigan Senate has proposed an additional $25 million for Lead and Copper Rule implementation in fiscal year 2020. The House did not include the funding in its budget.

The 2019 supplemental spending bill will add $10 million to the Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation Fund, which is designed to repay exonerated residents forced to spend time behind bars for crimes they did not commit.

Lawmakers had approved that funding into a separate bill, but Whitmer issued her first line-item veto in in May. She cited a vow to reject any policy measure that includes an appropriation, a tactic Republicans have used to make controversial laws immune from voter referendum.

An additional $2 million will help expand the state’s “Double Up Food Bucks,” which rewards low-income residents for spending government assistance dollars of fruits or vegetables at local farmers markets. Whitmer hopes to expand the program to all 83 Michigan counties by 2020.

The new spending bill includes $8 million to prepare for initiated laws and constitutional amendments approved last fall by voters, including $5 million for the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs to implement a new adult-use recreational marijuana licensing system.

The plan also allocates $1.5 million to Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson’s office for implementation, education and training services for automatic registration and no-reason absentee voting allowed under Proposal 3, and another $1 million for absentee voter counting board tabulators.

The Department of Technology, Management and Budget will get $500,000 for Secretary of State computer system upgrades related to Proposal 3.

The plan does not include funding Whitmer requested to help Benson implement Proposal 2, the anti-gerrymandering amendment to establish a citizen redistricting commission that will draw new political boundaries for 2020.

As The Detroit News previously reported, the supplemental spending bill will re-authorize $11 million for five other projects approved late last year but delayed because of “drafting errors.”

Included in that pot is $2.5 million for the Michigan Launch Initiative, a project of the Michigan Aerospace Manufacturers Association that aims to create a low-orbit satellite-launch site and command center in the state.

Snyder had approved the funding late last year after lawmakers added $115 million of pork to a lame-duck spending bill.

A handful of those so-called enhancement grants have proven controversial, including a $10 million earmark to facilitate a Salem Township redevelopment project involving former Republican Party Chairman Bobby Schostak.

That project, which drew accusations of political favoritism by the GOP-led Legislature, was frozen by the Whitmer administration. It is not part of the revised spending plan but could be considered in a separate supplemental bill. 

As part of an agreement between Whitmer and lawmakers, the state will be required to develop a standard form for each enhancement grant that includes identifying information, a description and timeline for the project. 

The reform includes a “claw back” provision allowing the state to recoup any enhancement grant funds that are misused or unspent by the end of 2021.

The supplemental spending bill is separate from the larger 2020 budget the governor and lawmakers hope to finalize by the Oct. 1 deadline prescribed in the Michigan Constitution. Whitmer is pushing a major bump in road repair funding, but GOP lawmakers have balked at her plan to raise fuel taxes by 45-cents per-gallon.