Whitmer signs new Michigan budget, says leaders found 'common ground'

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed off on the state's new $70 billion budget on Wednesday, saying it was an example of what can happen when officeholders seek "common ground."

The funding plan, which takes effect Oct. 1, uses a rush of federal COVID-19 relief funds and better-than-expected state tax revenues to expand investments in childcare programs, target millions of dollars for road and environmental infrastructure projects and boost the rainy day fund.

During a press conference at Lansing Community College, the Democratic governor said the budget approved by the GOP-controlled Legislature brings investments in "kitchen table issues."

"This budget really is a testament of what we're capable of when we put the needs of the people of our state first and foremost," Whitmer said. "This budget shows that divided government doesn't have to be dysfunctional government."

The current year's initial spending plan was $62.8 billion when Whitmer signed it into law last year. In July, the governor signed the $17.1 billion budget for K-12 education, calling it the largest investment in schools in state history. On Wednesday, she signed two bills that complete the process with spending for state departments and agencies, community colleges and universities.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, flanked by Lansing Community College student Mariah Lawrence, left, and Lt. Governor Garlin Gilchrist II, signs two bills completing the state's next budget into law during a press conference at the college's robotics lab on Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2021.

The new budget includes about $1.4 billion in child care spending that is expected to make 105,000 more children eligible for child care aid. The budget invests millions of dollars for road and environmental infrastructure, including $196 million for local bridge repairs, $14 million to help local governments prepare for extreme weather and coastal erosion and $19 million for emergency dam safety provisions.

It features $147 million for so-called "enhancement grants" for an array of projects across the state, including $5 million for a frequency tower for Berrien County First Responders and $5.2 million for upgrades to Kent County Youth Fair facilities.

The budget bolsters job skills and tourism programs with $40 million to the Going Pro initiative, which helps employers train current and newly hired employees, and $55 million to Michigan Reconnect, which offers scholarships to individuals over the age of 25 with a high school diploma seeking an associate degree. The plan allocates $40 million to the Pure Michigan tourism promotion program. And it includes about $460 million for a permanent raise of $2.35 an hour to direct care workers caring for the elderly and other vulnerable individuals. 

Senate Appropriations Chairman Jim Stamas, R-Midland, thanked the governor and her team for their "cooperation" on the budget in a statement Wednesday. GOP lawmakers and Whitmer have spent much of the last 18 months during the COVID-19 pandemic at odds over how to respond to the virus.

The agreement on the budget could be "the framework for future bipartisan achievements," Stamas said.

"We continue to work to put Michigan back on track with a permanent increase in wages for our direct care workers and training to help people obtain in-demand jobs," Stamas said. "We achieve all this while depositing $500 million more in the state’s rainy-day fund and keeping taxes low for Michigan families."

Whitmer vetoes anti-abortion line items

The governor did veto seven spending initiatives that she described as "anti-choice" in a letter to lawmakers on Wednesday.

The more than $16 million in line-item vetoes included $10 million to fund marketing programs to promote the adoption of infants and develop materials on adoption as an alternative to abortion and $1 million for pregnant and parenting student services at community colleges and universities. The pregnant and parenting services program included a ban on "referrals for abortion services," according to the bill approved by the Legislature.

"I will continue to stand in the way of any efforts to strip away fundamental rights from women or get in the way of doctors' abilities to do their jobs," Whitmer said in a letter to lawmakers.

The anti-abortion group Right to Life of Michigan slammed the vetoes.

"This is just one more in the long series of actions by Gov. Whitmer that shows her extreme pro-abortion stance," said Barbara Listing, Right to Life's president. "We are not surprised by her actions to deprive women of pregnancy help. Governor Whitmer’s approach to dealing with women facing crisis pregnancies is abortion first, actual help second."

More money to spend

The Legislature still has roughly $10 billion in additional money that could be included in a supplemental spending plan later this year.

About $7 billion of that cash is leftover federal COVID relief funds, state Budget Director Dave Massaron told reporters Tuesday. 

Whitmer said the state needs to deploy those resources this fall. The goals are raising wages and making Michigan a place businesses can thrive and people want to raise their families, she said.

"We don't want to waste this opportunity," the governor said.

Governor weighs COVID provisions

The initial spending plan approved by the GOP-controlled Legislature last week included a controversial provision that barred the director of the state Department of Health and Human Services and local health officers from enforcing orders that require individuals who are younger than 18 to wear face masks. Whitmer has blocked the policy, saying it is unconstitutional.

Governors have the ability to unilaterally strike down so-called boilerplate language that directs how money should be spent if they believe the provisions conflict with the state Constitution.

Multiple county health officials in Michigan, including those in Wayne and Oakland counties, have instituted orders that require K-12 students to wear masks in schools. Republicans have opposed the mandates, arguing that people should make decisions for themselves.

GOP lawmakers said they negotiated for other budget policies to limit vaccine mandates on state and local government employees and to require more information when the health department issues an epidemic order. Those policies will remain in the new budget, but Whitmer's offices believes they will have minimal impact.

The budget says state government departments, agencies, boards, commissions and public officers cannot subject any individual to negative employment consequences or retribution because of their COVID-19 vaccine status.

Also, Michigan's proposal for funding community colleges and universities features separate language requiring that higher education institutions provide medical and religious exemptions to mandatory vaccine requirements.

Whitmer didn't strike the language from the budget but her office believes it won't be enforced because universities operate autonomously. However, House Appropriations Chairman Thomas Albert, R-Lowell, gave a differing interpretation Wednesday, saying universities' autonomy is not limitless.

"These student protections do not violate the Constitution in any way," Albert said. "The Legislature has the power of the purse and, within constitutional bounds, has broad discretion to make its appropriations conditional."