Whitmer delays exploring budget cuts as GOP criticizes foot dragging

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Lansing — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's budget officer said Thursday the COVID-19 crisis has prompted "tremendous challenges" to the budget and will delay the administration's timeline for submitting a revised budget with a $3 billion shortfall.

"With a General Fund that has been flat for more than 20 years, there's very little left to cut from state government without impacting essential and critical services and programs," Michigan Budget Director Chris Kolb said during a Thursday media briefing.

Governor Gretchen Whitmer provides an update on COVID-19 in Michigan on Thursday, May 28, 2020.

"I believe that our legislative leaders agree this is an unprecedented challenge unlike anything we've seen in our lifetime. We will need to work together and find common ground to solve the budget challenges in front of us."

Kolb, Whitmer and representatives for state nurses, trade association workers and child care centers renewed the Democratic administration's call for a federal bailout to preserve essential services and resources in Michigan. Republican congressional leaders and the Trump administration haven't been eager to start talking about a new stimulus package after passing a $2.2 trillion package in late March. 

But Republican legislative budget leaders promptly criticized the Whitmer administration Thursday for dragging its feet in identifying potential budget cuts to deal with a $3.2 billion shortfall in the current budget that ends Sept. 30 and $3 billion for Fiscal Year 2021.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Stamas, R-Midland, and House Appropriations Committee Chairman Shane Hernandez, R-Port Huron, called on Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to begin working with legislative leaders to balance the current state budget.

“Waiting on a Hail Mary from Congress is not a plan," Stamas said. "We now know the full scope of the budget problem, and we need the governor to start working with the Legislature to solve it. With each day that goes by without action, the state continues to spend money we don’t have — making it more difficult to balance the budget.”

Over 80% of the state's General Fund or the main spending account and the School Aid Fund support public schools, local communities, public safety and health care. The budget office is already doing a comprehensive review but department budgets are "already skinny" and there's "no way to cut our way out of this" with state reductions alone, Kolb said.

A recent state law calls for the budget to be done by July 1, but Kolb said the budget timeline "is going to have to be different." The state's rainy day fund is $1.2 billion.

"Even if we used every single penny in that fund we won't be able to solve or close our budget problem," Kolb said. "A broader solution is needed, and Congress must come together to provide it."

Kolb's comments came after Whitmer opened her third news briefing this week by noting that during the 10 weeks of the coronavirus emergency, $8.5 billion has been paid to Michigan workers through unemployment, $25 million directed to hospitals, $3.4 million for nursing homes and $191 million for child care. 

"Every state in the nation is confronting a budget crisis that threatens everything from the education of our kids to our public safety to the health care that we all so desperately rely on," Whitmer said, reiterating the need for federal aid to states. “President Trump called this a war and that’s exactly what it is, so we need to act like it. Our enemy now is not one another, our enemy is a virus called COVID-19.”

MDHHS Chief Deputy for Health and Chief Medical Executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun updates Michigan residents on COVID-19 developments, along with Governor Gretchen Whitmer on Thursday, May 28, 2020.

Whitmer announced expanded testing efforts on Tuesday and confirmed that her husband had made a call about getting his boat placed in the water in Northern Michigan during the pandemic. During the call, her husband, Marc Mallory, asked if his connection to the governor could get his boat installed more quickly, which Whitmer said was a joke.

Earlier Thursday, President Donald Trump slammed Whitmer in a tweet, criticizing her husband's request of NorthShore Dock LLC and saying it was a "double standard."