Whitmer prioritizes education, infrastructure for Michigan's $18B in federal COVID relief

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Monday laid out her priorities for Michigan's about $18 billion in new federal COVID relief dollars, naming infrastructure, learning loss solutions and workforce investment as chief among the state's needs. 

But the Democratic governor stopped short of suggesting to the Republican-controlled Legislature what dollar amounts should be attached to each priority, hoping it would serve as an "opening salvo" in negotiations that have been contentious in the past. 

"By taking this tact, by not going through and articulating how every dime should be spent, and then asking them to respond to us, what we've said is these are the priorities, these are the values," Whitmer said in a Monday press call.

"This very well meshes with what the business community has suggested: Let's think long-term, sustainability, transformational change, economic competitiveness," she said. 

The state is set to receive about $18 billion through the American Rescue Plan passed by Congress in March, but State Budget Director David Massaron said the number may shift up or down as the U.S. Department of Treasury finalizes distribution rules. 

The $18 billion includes about $5.7 billion to Michigan in flexible relief dollars, $4.4 billion for local communities and $3.9 billion for schools. 

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer U.S. talks about the statewide COVID-19 vaccination effort during a press conference outside the Eastern Michigan University Convocation Center, which was hosting a vaccination clinic, on April 12, 2021.

Among the priorities for those dollars are small business grant programs and accelerators, business attraction efforts, infrastructure investments, expanded public health capacity, senior services and health care access, expansions to preschool and child care, addressing pandemic-induced learning loss and behavior health supports.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey's office said the priorities Whitmer provided Monday were the first details that have emerged of the plan.

"If it is the governor’s honest intention to work with legislative leaders, perhaps she should have first brought her ideas to them rather than, once again, trying to railroad the legislative process through the press," said Abby Walls, a spokeswoman for Shirkey's office.

"But we are glad to start productive negotiations with the governor’s office without having to guess where her priorities lie." 

Rep. Thomas Albert, the Lowell Republican who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, said the House has been working on a plan that "will offer concrete solutions to move Michigan forward." He said the plan will be released "in the near future."

"It’s important we adopt a plan that helps struggling Michigan families and job providers, allows students to catch up on lost learning, lays a solid foundation for the state as it emerges from the pandemic, and prepares for the day federal aid inevitably runs out," Albert said. 

Michigan also has about $2 billion left from the last COVID relief package passed by Congress in December. 

"As we work through the spending of that funding, we’ll keep the chairs of the relevant committees aware of where we stand," Massaron said. 

The Legislature's distribution of the December funding was fraught with disagreements over the spending and whether it should be linked to various strictures on Whitmer's executive authority. 

Whitmer vetoed some of the funding linked to limits on the Department of Health and Human Services' epidemic orders, while other funds were held back by the Legislature to be distributed at intervals throughout the year. 

Whitmer said she's been in communication with some legislative Republicans and Democrats and is hopeful the negotiations over the American Rescue Plan dollars will go more smoothly.

"We want to really be smart about these resources," Whitmer said. "This is something that will long outlast any of my tenure in state government or anyone who’s currently in the Legislature for that matter.”

Whitmer cited an April 5 letter from various regional chambers and business groups in which they lobbied for spending that would have long-term impacts on the state, prevent backsliding and maximize Michigan's share of the federal dollars. 

"Whether we supported the authorization of this federal aid or not, it's here," read the letter from Small Business Association of Michigan, Michigan Manufacturers Association, Business Leaders for Michigan and the Grand Rapids, Detroit and Lansing chambers. 

"The main question now is: will we seize this singular moment to help

Michigan emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic stronger – or will we look back years from now only to realize a significant opportunity to transform our state was squandered?" the letter said.