Judge tosses charges against 7 state officials in Flint water crisis

Budget progress signaled as Michigan Legislature advances funding bills

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — The state House and Senate advanced bills Wednesday restoring funding to dozens of budget priorities, signalling long-awaited progress in negotiations among Republican legislative leaders and Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. 

Two supplemental bills would direct $114.5 million to education funding and $459 million to general government spending, $257 million of which is general fund dollars. The supplemental legislation would restore more than a third of the $947 million Whitmer vetoed two months ago and the $625 million she transferred within state departments. 

The Michigan House meets in session earlier in 2019.

“We had a more productive day today than we’ve had in months and a lot of progress was made," said House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, "and I look forward to finalizing this deal and moving forward as a state this week.”

A Senate majority leader's representative also was optimistic.

"I think the fact that we’re moving bills suggests that there is significant progress than what we’ve seen previously, but it is still an evolving negotiation," said Amber McCann, a spokeswoman for Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake.

Whitmer's administration said the governor was pleased with the action taken Wednesday to "restore critical funding for public health, public safety, and public education."

"This is an important, bipartisan step forward for our state to ensure we are providing essential services to Michigan families and she is hopeful we can finalize it next week," Whitmer's spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said. 

The funding bills are a product of negotiations among Whitmer's administration, Shirkey and House Speaker Lee Chatfield, but the action taken Wednesday was not the final word on the legislation. The supplemental spending bills passed by wide margins in the House and Senate, but votes on the potential policy changes were more divided, largely along party lines. 

The spending bills would restore funding to 27 of the 147 items vetoed by Whitmer and reverse funding transfers in six departments: Agriculture and Rural Development, Health and Human Services, Insurance and Financial Services, Labor and Economic Opportunity, Licensing and Regulatory Affairs, and Transportation. 

Two other policy bills were moved Wednesday, but their contents are expected to change over the next week as negotiations move forward. The bills require the Legislature to present a budget to the governor by July 1 of each year and would make statutory changes to the power of the State Administrative Board. The extent of the limits on the board have yet to be agreed on.

Among the items restored in the supplemental spending bills are funding for the Michigan Tuition Grant, an aid increase for charter schools, summer school literacy interventions, early literacy coaches, isolated school districts, county jail reimbursements, rural hospitals, an autism support program, opioid response programs, secondary road patrols, and payments made in lieu of taxes to communities contained state-owned land.

The supplementals contain funding requested by Whitmer, including funding for new prison officers, tether replacements for parolees, the implementation of the Medicaid expansion work requirement, the implementation of no-fault auto insurance reform, 2020 Census activities and the independent citizens redistricting commission.

Republican legislative leaders have been at a stalemate with the Democratic governor over the $58 billion budget and the manner of generating additional road funding for state infrastructure. The impasse occurred after Whitmer made the veto cuts and shifted hundreds of millions in department budgets that ended up cutting money from some nonprofits and Republican budget priorities.

The legislation was introduced Wednesday to comply with a five-day rule that requires a bill to be printed, introduced and in possession of each chamber for five days before becoming law. Lawmakers are scheduled to go on break Dec. 12, pushing the timeline forward for restoring certain funding.  

Whitmer proposed a 45-cent gas tax increase this spring for roads, but she shelved the plan for later consideration after furor from Republicans, who argued the state should first ensure all taxes paid at the pump go to the roads. No Democratic lawmakers have introduced the tax proposal in the House or Senate.

After the 45-cent increase was shelved, the GOP-led House and Senate passed budgets with one-time spending increases for road and bridge repairs.

But Whitmer's administration argued the budgets didn't do enough to fund schools, communities and roads and hoped her vetoes and funding transfers would bring Republicans back to the negotiating table. 

Flanked by  Senate Majority leader Mike Shirkey, left, and Speaker of the House Lee Chatfield Gov. Gretchen Whitmer delivers her State of the State speech.

The transfers set off an intense debate in Lansing over the State Administrative Board, which Whitmer used to make the transfers. Republican lawmakers have been pushing to limit the board's authority before restoring any of the money that Whitmer vetoed.

The Democratic governor has been adamant that she wouldn't permanently trade away a power of her office in any deal to restore part of the vetoed and transferred money. Whitmer and Chatfield struck a tentative deal last month, but Shirkey rejected it because it wouldn't change the governor's budget transfer power.