Budget talks back on rocks as Senate GOP pushes to limit gov's power

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — A push to resolve Michigan's budget standoff broke down Thursday as Republican Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey and Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer declined to cross lines in the sand they had drawn weeks earlier.

When the day started, Whitmer said she and the leaders of the GOP-controlled Legislature were "close" to agreeing on a supplemental spending bill that would have restored some of the nearly $1 billion in budget vetoes she made at the end of September.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist announce their plan to expand the right to overtime for more Michigan workers at a news conference at the Fisher Building in Detroit on Thursday.

The vetoes slashed funding for rural hospitals, sheriff's departments and nonprofit organizations, among other programs, in an effort to pressure Republicans to return to the negotiating table.

But a few hours after Whitmer's statement, the Senate adjourned for the week without taking action, closing a brief window of optimism.

Shirkey's spokeswoman, Amber McCann, said Shirkey, R-Clarklake, continued to seek a policy change that would limit the governor's power to make transfers within Legislature-approved budget plans going forward.

"Unless it has the weight of law, unfortunately, Gov. Whitmer has proven herself to be untrustworthy," McCann told reporters.

On Oct. 1, Whitmer used the power of the State Administrative Board to make $625 million in transfers within departmental budget bills approved by lawmakers. Whitmer has repeatedly said she won't permanently give away a power of the governor's office.

House Republican leaders had been pursuing a compromise between Shirkey's desire for a specific change in law to restrict the State Administrative Board and Whitmer's vow not to sacrifice the executive branch's power.

Talks had focused on creating a legal precedent through language attached to budget bills that could limit the transfer ability of the governor without the governor having to sign a specific policy change on the subject.

But the talks stalled Thursday as Shirkey's team re-emphasized its desires for a change in state law.

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

After the Senate adjourned, Whitmer spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said Thursday was "the best opportunity to fix the fundamental problems in the budget and protect public health and safety, which is why the governor and speaker worked so hard to negotiate a bipartisan agreement on a supplemental and transfer powers."

"With so many people’s lives impacted by this budget, it’s disappointing that the Senate Republicans are unwilling to compromise and chose to adjourn without finishing their work," Brown added.

The GOP-led House remained in session hours after the Senate adjourned. Going into the day, the House was scheduled to begin a three-week break on Friday, meaning there would have been at least three weeks until the Legislature and Whitmer could restore the vetoed money.

On Thursday, however, the House decided to schedule a session day for Wednesday. The Senate already has session days scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday. Then, senators will go on a two-week break.

The House's schedule change potentially allows for a compromise to be reached next week. If the scheduling change hadn't occurred, a resolution would have had to wait until December at the earliest.

House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, said conversations this week with Whitmer have "laid a foundation for future discussions."

"The Senate majority leader, the governor and I all still have some concerns, and we are going to work through those over the next several days," he added in a statement.

New Speaker of the House Lee Chatfield R-Levering, speaks to the media in Lansing in this Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019 file photo.

As lawmakers and Whitmer continue to disagree over how to bridge their divide, rural hospitals, sheriff's departments, charter school students and nonprofits wait in limbo after Whitmer vetoed their funding.

For example, Whitmer's vetoes struck $1.02 million for the nonprofit Autism Alliance of Michigan to provide assistance to those with autism. The Autism Alliance is tapping into reserves and other resources to keep its efforts going, the organization's president and CEO, Colleen Allen, recently said.

“I need them to do it yesterday,” Allen said about a hoped-for resolution to the stalemate.

Earlier Thursday, Whitmer encouraged groups whose funding was cut to lobby lawmakers to pass a supplemental spending bill and "not play games."

McCann countered later in the day, "The only person who chose to take their money away was Gov. Whitmer."

Republicans have introduced 24 supplemental bills totaling more than $260 million, while Democratic Sen. Curtis Hertel of East Lansing, in consultation with Whitmer, has introduced two bills that would add $475 million. 

The GOP and Hertel both seek to restore about $1 million for the autism initiative and $34.2 million for a rate increase for isolated rural hospitals providing what is called critical access to care. Republican lawmakers want to add $74.6 million overall for five kinds of rural hospital services including the critical access rate hike.

None of the bills addresses the end of $37.5 million for the Pure Michigan marketing campaign that Whitmer vetoed. 

The governor also vetoed $13 million for secondary road patrols, a state grant program that finances county deputies to patrol county and local roads outside of a city or village. About 120 county sheriff's deputies could be laid off throughout the state should the secondary road patrol cuts take effect, said Rep. Mike Mueller, R-Linden, a former Livingston County deputy and sponsor of a bill to restore the funding.