State House floats $13B supplemental that would use up federal COVID-19 relief

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

The Michigan House on Tuesday unveiled a $13 billion supplemental spending plan that would utilize the state's federal COVID-19 relief dollars for education, infrastructure and pandemic response. 

The bill is expected to be discussed in Wednesday's House Appropriations Committee meeting and comes after protracted battles in early 2021 over the fate of federal COVID-19 relief dollars and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's emergency powers.

The GOP-led Legislature's plan previously attached money to provisions that would require in-person schooling or require the state health department to curb some of its pandemic authority. 

The $13 billion House proposal appears to make similar overtures, pushing some money toward an investigation into the governor's nursing home policies and overall pandemic response, and tying some to limits on the governor's authority to transfer money between state departments. 

“We want to make sure money intended to help kids is used to help kids, and money that’s intended to help roads will help roads,” said Rep. Thomas Albert, chairman for the House Appropriations Committee. 

An outline of the spending plan was included in a statement from House Republicans. The exact language of the budget bills was unavailable Tuesday.

Pillars provide barriers in front of the Michigan State Capitol building in Lansing, Wednesday morning, Jan. 13, 2021.

The money includes about $3.2 billion in unused federal COVID-19 relief dollars from December, $8.6 billion in COVID-19 relief dollars from March and $1.3 billion in state general fund money, according to a statement from Albert.

The House's plan would direct about $743 million toward food assistance, $481 million to rent and utility assistance, $4.8 billion to remedial education, $45 million to school ventilation upgrades and $1.4 million to early childhood care. 

Another $558 million would go toward COVID-19 testing, $180 million for vaccine distribution, $205 million for mental health facility upgrades and $400 million "to help people move off unemployment and return to work." 

Other proposed expenditures are more long-term, such as $686 million for local governments, $595 million toward the Flint water settlement, and $350 million into the state's rainy day fund.

Investments also would be made in infrastructure. About $1.2 billion would go to roads, including $700 million to pay down bond debt, $150 million for rural broadband, and $250 million for water and sewer grants. 

"We have a unique opportunity to invest in roads, broadband and other infrastructure Michigan needs to emerge from the pandemic with a stronger foundation," said Albert, R-Lowell. "And we have a responsibility to prepare for the day our state budget is no longer artificially propped up by billions of dollars in federal aid."

About $6 billion of the supplemental is tied to a provision that would limit the State Administrative Board to transfers totaling no more than $200,000. 

The provision comes after Whitmer, in a 2019 budget battle, used the State Administrative Board to transfer about $625 million between state departments to sidestep legislative allocations she disliked. 

Last week, Whitmer laid out her priorities for Michigan's federal COVID-19 relief dollars but stopped short of suggesting dollar amounts in the hope that it would serve as an "opening salvo" to more productive budget negotiations. 

Whitmer named infrastructure, learning loss solutions and workforce investment as chief needs for the state. 

"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