GOP leaders offer 'middle ground' in budget talks; Whitmer won't trade power

Beth LeBlanc Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Republican leaders offered Tuesday what they consider a compromise to resolve a budget standoff that's left nonprofits, hospitals and students waiting on state funding, but it was opposed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's administration. 

The Democratic governor's representatives continued to emphasize that Whitmer won't permanently trade away a power of her office in any deal to restore part of the $947 million she vetoed and another $625 million in department funding transfers. 

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey and House Speaker Lee Chatfield said in a Tuesday statement that Whitmer's openness to "boilerplate language" that would stop her from using State Administrative Board transfer powers is “common sense middle ground."

The Democratic governor’s openness to boilerplate language that would stop her from using State Administrative Board transfer powers is “common sense middle ground,” Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, left, and House Speaker Lee Chatfield said in a Tuesday statement.

But the two sides have different approaches for how to address boilerplate language, which point to the continuing divide in Lansing.

Boilerplate language is usually inserted in state budgets to direct how specific dollars should be spent. Republicans are now asking Whitmer to support a bill that would specifically limit her ability to transfer funds within departmental budgets if the funds have boilerplate language attached.

The bill would essentially add seven words to state law, including five that stipulate the State Administrative Board can make transfers "unless otherwise provided by law."

“I think this is a perfect landing spot," Shirkey said Tuesday.

But Whitmer officials have said she's willing to refrain from using the State Administrative Board to make transfers in only negotiated supplemental bills this budget year. She is not willing to set permanent restrictions on the governor's transfer power. 

The governor has never said "she is willing to agree to a statutory change in powers that have been around for 98 years," Whitmer's spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said. "In fact, she has made quite clear for the last month that she will not."

"You know, we could settle this whole thing right now if these guys would shake hands with the governor on a negotiated budget agreement — like every other governor and Legislature in Michigan history," Zack Pohl, Whitmer's communications director, posted Tuesday on social media.

The GOP-led Legislature and Whitmer have both outlined restorations they’d like to make to the budget over the last few weeks. They have been at an impasse over Whitmer's use of the State Administrative Board to transfer money within departments, a tool not used since the early 1990s under Republican former Gov. John Engler’s administration.

“Our first choice for a solution was to repeal the board or cap the dollar limits of its transfers," but enforceable boilerplate language to limit the power would help to “solve this impasse,” said Shirkey, R-Clarklake, and Chatfield, R-Levering.

“Being in divided government, compromise is necessary,” Shirkey and Chatfield said in a joint statement. “While this was not our first option, this is a simple solution that we can agree to. Let’s come together and get this done.”

The statement follows a Monday letter from Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist in which Gilchrist said Whitmer would not use the State Administrative Board “assuming the governor and the Legislature resume the consistent past practice of negotiating budgets and supplementals.”

He also signaled the governor would publicly demonstrate that commitment through a variety of options, including boilerplate language agreeing to a restriction on administrative board transfers for that specific supplemental spending bill.

But the Legislature's method of giving the boilerplate language the force of law — through separate legislation, House Bill 5176, proposed by Rep. Shane Hernandez, R-Port Huron — appears to counter Whitmer's refusal to make statutory changes to the administrative board transfer.

Chatfield contended that legislation allowing for the boilerplate language specific to the State Administrative Board was the only enforceable option. The legislation, if passed, would allow the Legislature to negotiate boilerplate language regarding administrative transfers each year.

“This is not a statutory limitation on her power,” Chatfield said. “This is a statutory way to create an avenue that we can negotiate boilerplate language next year.”

Asked what would stop lawmakers from sending the governor budgets with boilerplate language attached to each appropriation, Shirkey spokeswoman Amber McCann replied Tuesday morning, "absolutely nothing."

Under the GOP-backed bill, a governor would have to veto an entire appropriation if the governor wanted to block the attached boilerplate language.

Democratic and Republican legislative leaders met with Whitmer Tuesday for about 30 minutes.

Asked if there was a chance that transfers could occur this week to undo some of the $625 million in shifts Whitmer’s administration made within the Legislature’s departmental budgets, Shirkey responded, "There are a lot of things in play."

This is a key week for budget negotiations at the Capitol. The state House has only two session days remaining this week before going on a three-week break through Thanksgiving.

Chatfield said Tuesday the House's calendar, "at this point, is set.” The Senate has two session days this week and two more scheduled for next week before a two-week break.

If state lawmakers and Whitmer can't reach a deal this week to restore nearly $1 billion in budget vetoes, more of the cuts will be felt throughout Michigan, according to nonprofit groups and others impacted by the vetoes.