Whitmer blasts GOP for taking 'vacation' without road, budget deals

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer meets with The Detroit News' editorial board at Cadillac Place in Detroit, Monday.

Lansing — Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Tuesday ramped up pressure on Republicans to negotiate road and budget deals, accusing lawmakers of taking a summer “vacation” with three months left to avoid a potential government shutdown.  

Defending her own proposal for a 45-cent gas tax hike over two years, Whitmer blasted a House Republican budget that proposes the state seek bids on government-owned assets like the Blue Water Bridge, calling it a “joke” and “insulting.”

“It’s akin to having a garage sale to pay your mortgage,” Whitmer said of the bridge provision tucked into the transportation budget approved two weeks ago by the GOP-led House.

The Legislature this week began a traditional summer recess, officially called an “in-district work period” allowing lawmakers time to reconnect with local constituents. The governor had urged lawmakers to stay in town.

“No one in any other field is allowed to go on vacation before they get their work done,” Whitmer told reporters during a media round table. “They’re expected to work, to stay on the job until their work is done. That’s exactly what we need to demand from our leaders in Lansing.”

The scene hearkened back to the summer of 2013, when then-Gov. Rick Snyder criticized Republican colleagues in the Senate for leaving town without taking up a proposal to expand Medicaid eligibility, urging them to "take a vote, not a vacation.”

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, met with the governor later Tuesday, spokeswoman Amber McCann confirmed, noting that senators "continue to work on a road funding plan." 

"Holding a press conference to accuse the legislature of being on 'vacation' ... is an old and tired political stunt," McCann said. 

Whitmer doubled down on her vacation refrain later Tuesday as she spoke to hundreds of union educators gathered at the Michigan Capitol for the second straight week to support her budget, which would boost K-12 classroom spending $507 million next year.

But legislative leaders on both sides of the aisle insist high-level negotiations can continue without keeping individual lawmakers in town for the full summer.

Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, endorsed the summer schedule last week, saying budget and roads deals can be negotiated through leadership conversations and legislative conference committees.

“I don’t think we need to be sitting in the body waiting for a deal,” Ananich said. “Obviously I think roads and the budget are extremely important. We should get them done as quickly as possible, but getting them right is more important.”

The House and the Senate have each scheduled tentative session dates throughout July and August. Lawmakers are prepared to act “as soon as we’ve got an agreement,” said House GOP spokesman Gideon D’Assandro.

“Obviously, work continues,” he said. “The House and the Senate passed strong budgets the last couple of weeks, and the work continues to work out the differences between those two.”

But Whitmer criticized the budgets, arguing her plan is the only one that “actually addresses the fundamentals that we need to fix in the state." 

Republicans have balked at the governor’s fuel tax proposal, a 180 percent increase that would give the state the highest rate in the nation. They’ve promised to unveil long-term road funding alternatives, but neither chamber has done so thus far.   

Whitmer had told reporters she planned to meet with Shirkey.  As for House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, “I don’t know where he is,” Whitmer said. “But I know Mike’s in town, so we’re having lunch.”

D’Assandro did not immediately respond a question about Chatfield’s whereabouts. A reporter for Michigan Advance reportedly spotted the House GOP leader near Washington, D.C., on Sunday afternoon.

Whitmer’s $59 billion state budget plan depends on adoption of gas and diesel hikes, which would generate roughly $1.3 billion in 2020 and $2.5 billion when fully phased in by 2021.

Her plan would eventually pump $1.9 billion a year in additional money into road repairs and facilitate other spending increases, including a K-12 funding boost she has called the largest of its kind in a generation. 

The House budget proposes a sales tax shift that would free up $542 million in additional revenue for roads next year without raising taxes. It scales back Whitmer’s K-12 spending plan and includes across-the-board cuts for administration and information technology in most other state departments.

A separate budget approved by the Senate would accelerate $132 million in funding for local road agencies next year.

While the Senate is not expected to convene for full session meetings, lawmakers will be talking and holding work groups to develop long-term road funding plans, McCann said last week.

The schedule is complicated by a summer construction project that will close the Senate chambers, requiring senators to meet in the House chamber should leadership choose to convene session.

Shirkey is asking Senate Republicans “to think about roads” without pulling “any option off the table until it’s been thoroughly evaluated and vetted to see if it’s something that’s worthwhile,” McCann said.

But Whitmer questioned the pace.

“It’s been crickets when it comes to an alternative plan to actually fix this problem,” she said, describing what she has called a “dangerous” infrastructure crisis.

The governor unveiled her own budget and road funding plans 112 days ago, she said, noting she has done 14 town halls, 16 round table meetings, 62 budget presentations and five bridge visits in the same span lawmakers met for session 42 times.

Top statewide business groups pushing for action on a long-term road funding plan have also urged lawmakers to stay in session over the summer.

“The window of opportunity that exists in this non-election year must not be wasted,” said a joint statement from the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, Business Leaders for Michigan, the Detroit Regional Chamber, the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce and other groups.

The Michigan Constitution requires a balanced budget by the start of the fiscal year on Oct. 1.

Whitmer has vowed to veto any budget that does not include a “real” plan to fix the state’s aging roads and bridges, but she said Tuesday she is hoping to avoid a stalemate that would produce Michigan’s first government shutdown since 2009.

“And here we are, they’re off for the next two weeks,” Whitmer said, "and that’s totally unconscionable and irresponsible, and I think dangerous. There are a lot of people counting on us finding some common ground on these fundamentals.”