Gov. Whitmer: Ready to work with Republicans despite 'insults'

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer called on Republican lawmakers Wednesday to negotiate with her to spend $5 billion in federal COVID-19 relief fundingas soon as possible, saying inaction is "unacceptable."

"Even if members of the Legislature want to indulge in conspiracy theories or hurl insults, I remain ready, I remain ready to work together to deliver for the people of this state," the Democratic governorsaid. "My judgment will not get clouded by that noise."

But for now, members of the GOP-controlled Legislature have decided to primarily negotiate with one another and not the governor. It sets up an uncertain path for billions of dollars in support for schools and fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Jim Stamas, R-Midland, said Wednesday afternoon that the discussions on relief dollars are taking place between the Senate and House. The Legislature has a "substantially" different plan than Whitmer's administration does, he said.

Asked if it's normal for the negotiations not to involve the governor's office until after the Legislature reaches a deal, Stamas replied, "I think it's done in a lot of different ways." 

House Appropriations Chairman Thomas Albert, R-Lowell, was more direct later Wednesday, saying negotiations have been taking place but Whitmer "isn't personally part of them."

"As I have said before, we will afford the governor as much input on the budget as she has afforded the people of Michigan during this pandemic," Albert said.

Whitmer emphasized the relief dollars during a Wednesday press conference, appearing to reference statements by Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, who has levied unsubstantiated claims that the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol was staged and dead people voted in the Nov. 3 election.

Whitmer unveiled her proposal for the spending the federal dollars on Jan. 19, including $2 billion for schools, $225 million for economic development programs and an extension of unemployment benefits. Every day that goes by is a day that $5 billion could be infused into the economy, Whitmer said Wednesday.

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"Meanwhile, Michigan families are struggling," she said. "Michigan businesses need some help. And many are worried about just putting food on the table. These dollars are there for these purposes."

Earlier this month, the Michigan House approved a $3.5 billion supplemental plan that would target some federal COVID-19 funding for quarterly installments and tie $2.1 billion in education funding to conditions that move power over school closures and student sports from the governor to local health officials. 

Last week, the Senate announced its own $2 billion supplemental spending bill that comes in about $1.5 billion less than the House plan but doesn't tie the money to a surrender of some emergency powers by the governor. 

"Instead of issuing a blank check for the governor to use without a detailed plan, our plan funds our state’s most pressing needs and saves additional resources so we can continue to assess the situation and have the ability to respond to problems as they arise," Stamas said of the plan, which the Senate could vote on next week.

Whitmer said her budget director, Dave Massaron, has met with Republican lawmakers and she continues to hold meetings with legislative leaders. The governor said she wants to "find some common ground."

"Every minute that goes by that we’re not deploying those resources threatens our ability to get back to normal," Whitmer said.

Her plan also features $90 million that Congress appropriated for vaccine distribution and $575 million to expand COVID-19 testing, tracing and lab capacity in Michigan.

The education element of the program features $1.7 billion from the federal government and $300 million in state dollars to help schools meet the governor’s goal of providing every student with an in-person learning opportunity by March 1 and to help address the learning loss that has occurred due to the pandemic, according to the administration.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services reported 6,576 new coronavirus infections last week, the lowest weekly case total since early October. The percentage of tests for the virus bringing positive results fell to 3.6%, and as of Monday, only 831 people were hospitalized with confirmed cases, less than half the total four weeks earlier.

New cases, hospitalizations and the percentage of tests with positive results have been three key metrics that Whitmer's administration has been watching to help decide when to ease or strengthen restrictions on businesses and public gatherings.

As of Monday, 1.6 million vaccine doses had been administrated in the state, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

Michigan currently ranks 20th among the 50 states for vaccine doses administered per population, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Michigan ranks ninth for doses administered overall, according to the data.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, right, visits the vaccination site at DeVos place in Grand Rapids on Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021. Second from right is Rep. David LaGrand, D-Grand Rapids.

On Monday, Michigan's largest hospital system, Beaumont Health, announced that it had learned of an unexpected and "significant reduction in" the Pfizer vaccine. The reduced amount of vaccine forced the health system to cancel 1,884 second dose appointments scheduled for Thursday.

Whitmer visited a vaccination site in Grand Rapids on Tuesday with U.S. Rep. Peter Meijer, R-Grand Rapids Township, and emphasized the state's goal of vaccinating 70% of Michiganians who are 16 years and older "as quickly as possible."

Michigan revealed its first COVID-19 infections on March 10. Since then, the state has reported 576,264 confirmed cases, 15,177 deaths linked to the virus and 517,991 recoveries.

cmauger@detroitnews.com