Michigan House approves controversial COVID spending bills that limit Whitmer's powers

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

The Michigan House approved a $3.5 billion supplemental Thursday that holds back some federal COVID-19 funding for quarterly installments and ties $2.1 billion in education funding to conditions that move power over school closures and student sports from the governor to local health officials. 

The four-bill package passed largely along party lines and amid objections from Democrats, who lobbied for the release of all federal relief money allocated to Michigan in the December federal stimulus package. 

Jason Wentworth (R) addresses his collegues as Speaker of The House as the Michigan Legislature holds its first of the 101st session at the Michigan State Capitol building in Lansing, Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2021.

State Rep. Thomas Albert, chairman for the House Appropriations Committee, defended the supplemental spending package, arguing the Legislature has a responsibility to ensure the money was being spent appropriately. 

"At the end of the day, our job is to provide accountability and oversight to the administration," said Albert, R-Lowell. The Legislature would monitor the dispersal of the funds allocated, including the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine, he noted.

"...If the governor performs in that time period, then we’ll continue on with the next installment,” Albert said.

Among the spending to be doled out quarterly are dollars for vaccine distribution, testing, food benefits, rental assistance, substance abuse treatment and mental health programs. All of the available federal education money was allocated but with conditions attached.

Albert dismissed concerns that the money would be returned to the federal government if it wasn't used, arguing that the state had time to appropriate the federal relief. 

"There’s no truth behind that," he said. "They can’t spend the money all at once. That’s just not how this works.”

House Democrats called for a vote Thursday on a separate plan that would allocate all $5 billion in federal funds allocated to the state, a proposal Whitmer first suggested last month. The motion was blocked.

House Democratic Leader Donna Lasinski called the House plan to hold back federal dollars and tie education funding to prohibitions on the state's emergency authority a "baldly partisan political game." The Scio Township Democrat asked House Republicans to vote on Democrats' $5 billion plan rather than "continue to hold hostage millions of federal stimulus dollars."

Albert said the House Democrats plan amounted to "carrying water for the governor," whom he said failed to consult the Legislature before floating the $5 billion spending plan. 

He argued the Legislature's plan better addresses struggling businesses and the need for students to have summer learning options after months of online instruction. 

"We have got to make sure that they get the education they deserve," Albert said. 

The House Republican education funding tie-bar would shift authority to close schools or stop sports from the state Department of Health and Human Services to local health departments. But the legislation would limit local health departments' decision-making by setting certain COVID-19 benchmarks that would have to be met before in-person schooling could be canceled. 

"I can't support limiting those regional health experts in our districts," said Rep. Sara Cambensy, D-Marquette.

The House Republican plan passed Thursday would allocate $415 million to help restaurants and other small businesses shuttered because of pandemic orders. It targets $38.5 million for liquor license fees and health department inspections for those businesses and gives another $322 million for property tax reimbursement and penalties and interest for struggling businesses. 

The plan also would set aside $165 million for rent and utility aid, $510 million for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, $22 million for vaccine distribution and $144 million for COVID-19 testing. 

Another $150 million would go to the state Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund, which is made up of businesses' unemployment taxes and has been drained over 11 months of skyrocketing unemployment.

The $2.1 billion education funding bill passed Thursday would allocate $1.5 billion earmarked for schools as well as $157 million for voluntary, in-person summer school and credit recovery programs and $21 million for teachers and staff running the programs. 

Another $363 million will be set aside as an incentive for schools to return to in-person learning by Feb. 15. The incentive would pay the district $250 per pupil who participates in 100% in-person instruction. 

Another $86.8 million is set aside for non-public school grants through the federal Emergency Assistance for Non-public Schools program. Because the money is federal, not state school aid funding, legislators are able to appropriate the money without violating the state's ban on public funding for private school.

eleblanc@detroitnews.com