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GOP leaders, Whitmer hit budget impasse

Lansing — The MichiganHouse and Senate will develop their own budgets after Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey said Wednesday Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has walked away from state budget negotiations 20 days before a possible government shutdown.

The apparent impasse comes three days after Whitmer backed off from a promised veto of any budget that didn't include new revenue to fix the state's crumbling infrastructure. Republican leaders had balked at Whitmer's proposed 45-cent-a-gallon fuel tax increase, but were unable to arrive at a consensus alternative.

The Democratic governor and Republican leaders appear to remain at loggerheads.

The GOP-led Legislature said it would proceed with regularly scheduled conference committees Thursday after “sincere efforts” to negotiate “came to an abrupt end,” Shirkey, R-Clarklake, said in a statement Wednesday evening.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, speaks with reporters following the Senate session on Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2019, in Lansing,

“A negotiation must include parties that put forth genuine effort to compromise and reach consensus,” Shirkey said in a statement. “We could not have predicted that our talks would break down over my governor wanting less money to fix the roads, but in the end, we could not accommodate her position.”

Whitmer quickly countered that the only reason a budget wasn't already completed was because "Republicans wasted two months by going on vacation this summer instead of staying in Lansing to negotiate."

The Senate’s budget will include $500 million more annually for roads that will stem from the general fund, Shirkey said, “building upon the promise we made to our taxpayers to find money within out existing budget.” House Republicans have promised to find similar savings in the existing budget. 

The general fund diversion of money from other programs to roads could compromise Whitmer's goal of a long-term fix that relies on new tax revenue as well as reduce the money available for other budget priorities.

"This status quo budgeting will only keep our roads the worst in the nation and our schools at the back of the pack," Whitmer said. "It’s not a real solution, and it won’t solve the crises our state is facing in education and infrastructure. Our citizens expect government to function, and I remain committed to doing that despite continued Republican actions to the contrary.”

Whitmer “continues to play games with road funding” by spending the summer demanding a $2.5 billion tax increase for roads and then insisting the new plan “invest no additional money toward roads at all,” House Appropriations Chairman Shane Hernandez said Wednesday.

“The Republican-led Legislature, over the past several years, has continually found savings and efficiencies to invest more into roads above and beyond what is required by current law,” said Hernandez, R-Port Huron. The House plans to find similar savings again “and we have identified several hundred million dollars to do just that without sacrificing money for schools or essential services,” he said.

House Speaker Lee Chatfield took a slightly more optimistic tone on Twitter, noting he would work with anyone who shares the House's goals for more road and school funding. 

"The House has said from Day 1 that we need to ensure we have record funding for roads and schools, and we're not backing down from that commitment," wrote Chatfield, R-Levering. "It’s what the people want."

The governor said earlier Wednesday she'd like Republicans to cancel budget conference committees scheduled for Thursday and allow more time for negotiations. 

"Conversations started yesterday and I would anticipate are going to continue today," she said about spending target talks. 

Democrats have argued that putting more one-time funding for roads in the budget could reduce the GOP's motivation to return to the bargaining table for a long-term deal, which leaders have vowed to do once the annual appropriations process is complete. 

"If we're really going to work on roads moving forward, and if there are really going to be discussions on that, then it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to make that any easier or less important by actually throwing more general fund" dollars at the problem, state Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr of East Lansing said Tuesday. 

"And the other issue you really have to deal with at some point is that there's a break even point where putting more money in doesn't actually improve the situation at all," Hertel said, arguing against half-measure solutions to the larger road funding problem

The Senate plan also would increase school aid roughly $400 million, an increase of about $120-$240 per pupil, Shirkey said.

Whitmer’s initial budget would have increased school aid dollars by $507 million through a weighted distribution formula favoring at-risk students. The House’s initial budget would increase school funding by $226 million, roughly $80 to $120 more per pupil.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer delivers her State of the State speech. Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey listens at left.

“The Senate, with our partners in the House, will deliver a budget on time,” Shirkey said. “It is unfortunate that the administration is no longer willing to be part of the budget process, but it will not deter us from funding taxpayer priorities and delivering a sound fiscal plan for Michigan.”