Whitmer officials: 'Severe' cuts ahead in Michigan without more federal aid

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Cuts to public safety and education in Michigan will be "unavoidable" unless federal lawmakers step up with more financial aid, State Budget Director Chris Kolb cautioned Tuesday.

During a press conference in Lansing, Kolb and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer called on President Donald Trump, the GOP-controlled U.S. Senate and the Democratic-controlled U.S. House to negotiate a new relief plan that provides more federal cash to states as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to slash government revenues.

Kolb and Whitmer also bashed a plan put forward by U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky. Kolb said the $1-trillion plan wouldn't provide a "single new dollar" of economic relief that Michigan and other states need.

“With this plan, the budget reductions in the coming year would be severe,” Whitmer's budget director said.

Given current revenues, cuts to public safety, education and health care services would be unavoidable at the local and state levels, Kolb said.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer updates the state on COVID-19 response efforts during a briefing on Tuesday, July 28, 2020.

McConnell said in a Tuesday interview with CNBC that there is $105 billion in aid for local and state governments in the form of aid for schools. He noted that education and the Medicaid health insurance program are the two biggest parts of state governments' budgets. 

"The $105 billion that we're advocating for education is direct assistance to states and localities with either the top or the second most expensive item in every one of their budgets," McConnell said. 

State officials are estimating Michigan is facing a $3-billion shortfall in its upcoming budget, which takes effect on Oct. 1.

They've already worked to patch a $3-billion hole in the current year budget, primarily by using previously allocated federal relief funds and $350 million from the state's "rainy day fund."

However, the past round of more than $3 billion in federal COVID-19 assistance has been depleted, and the looming shortfall for next year remains.

On Tuesday, Whitmer called on federal lawmakers to return to the negotiating table.

“I implore everyone in Washington, D.C., to stop the partisanship and get something done,” the Democratic governor said.

The comments came during Whitmer's first COVID-19 press conference in 13 days as she updated the public on the state's ongoing response to the virus. They also came as federal lawmakers continued to debate the details of a new relief package in Washington, D.C.

Senate Republicans revealed a $1 trillion proposal on Monday, but U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, has criticized the GOP plan and called for more negotiations.

Whitmer, who wore a "vote" mask when she wasn't speaking during the briefing, noted that the Senate GOP's proposal cuts the $600 extra weekly benefit for unemployed Americans during the pandemic down to $200 a week. The $600 benefit from a prior relief package effectively expired last week.

"We want to continue that (unemployment aid) at their traditional level, and back the states up so they can afford to continue it for unnecessarily longer periods of time," McConnell said. "But it also involves the principle of not paying your neighbor more to stay home than you're making by going back to work."

The Whitmer administration's Unemployment Insurance Agency has been criticized, especially by Republican lawmakers, for failing to get jobless benefits to Michigan residents in a timely way. There remains a backlog of disputed, unpaid claims.

Whitmer and Kolb also criticized the Senate Republican plan of tying some relief dollars for schools to whether their buildings reopen for in-person instruction.

"We’ve got to continue to follow the science," Whitmer said. "We can’t move unless we know it’s going to be safe to do that."

The governor has warned that increasing spread of COVID-19 could eventually force her to close more businesses or potentially bar schools from reopening to in-person instruction this fall. Some schools have already decided to offer only online learning when they reopen about one month from now.

State Budget Director Chris Kolb speaks during a press conference on Tuesday, July 28, 2020.

On Tuesday, Whitmer said "our actions today" will determine whether the COVID-19 case numbers and hospitalizations increase or decline. The state will remain "nimble" when deciding what can happen with schools, many of which are scheduled to reopen a month from now, she said.

“If the numbers continue to go up, then, we may not be able to resume in-person instruction," Whitmer said.

The virus peaked here in April but the daily number of new cases and the percentage of tests bringing positive results began trending upward in June, which has caught the attention of state health officials.

However, deaths and hospitalizations have remained relatively low.

Last week, the state confirmed 3,798 new cases of the virus, which was down from the week before, and 48 new deaths, the lowest weekly total since March.