Senate budget scraps ‘Heat and Eat’ program for poor

Jonathan Oosting

Lansing — A Michigan Senate panel on Tuesday axed state food and heat aid for the poor, while another declined to fund Gov. Rick Snyder’s infrastructure spending requests as lawmakers maneuvered to create financing for a possible tax cut.

Michigan Senate subcommittees advanced budget bills that would scrap nearly $200 million in spending proposed by Snyder, including a Department of Health and Human Services budget that chairman Jim Marleau called “flat out not good.”

The Lake Orion Republican proceeded with votes on the scaled-back budget bill despite personal concerns, citing marching orders from Senate GOP leaders who are attempting to free up revenue that might be used to finance a reduction in the 4.25 percent state income tax or pay down state debt.

“I’m willing to put in whatever hours it takes, whatever amount of days it takes to get this turned around if the climate changes,” said Marleau, telling reporters he preferred the governor’s budget to the version advanced to the full Senate Appropriations committee.

A separate general government budget that advanced Tuesday would trim $75 million in fiscal year 2018 general fund spending proposed by Snyder, including new investments in drinking water and infrastructure funds. It would eliminate more than 800 state worker positions the chairman said are currently vacant.

The Health and Human Services budget would reduce $112 million in general fund spending proposed by the governor and cut general fund spending $4 million over the current year. It would save $39 million by shifting welfare cash reserve funding.

Cuts include elimination of the “Heat and Eat” program, which costs the state $6.8 million in energy assistance dollars but helps low-income families qualify for more than $300 million in federal food assistance.

Michigan stopped participating in the Heat and Eat program in 2014 when the federal government raised contribution requirements. But the Snyder administration and state Legislature struck a deal late last year to reinstate the program.

A supplemental spending bill Snyder signed in December allowed the state provide $20 in energy assistance to each of more than 338,000 low-income families, who then each became eligible for $76.73 per month in federal food assistance.

Snyder proposed continuing the state funding in his 2018 budget, saying the $6.8 million approved last year for Heat and Eat increased food purchasing power in low-income households by more than $304 million.

“I think it’s a common-sense proposal, and I’ve been fighting for it for a year-and-a-half now,” said state Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr., D-Meridian Township, who voted against the budget bill but successfully added a $100 placeholder to allow continued discussion on Heat and Eat.

The budget bill would also delay a 50-cent-an-hour pay increase for community health direct care workers until April, saving roughly $7 million in state funding. Marleau said legislators had agreed to provide them with a pay increase in October and another 50-cent raise the following year.

“When you have caregivers taking care of your loved ones and they’re making less money per hour than the individual taking your order at a fast food restaurant, that’s a problem,” he said.

Marleau voted for the budget bill but joined Hertel in expressing hope that it is not the final product legislators send to the governor’s desk.

The budget reductions come as both chambers continue to trim Snyder’s spending recommendations in an attempt jump start a debate over potential tax relief. The House, in particular, remains interested in cutting the personal income tax rate despite a failed vote in February.

The Senate budget, which is advancing to the floor in individual parts, is expected to end up around $500 million below Snyder’s $55 billion budget proposal, which includes $10.15 billion in discretionary general fund dollars. About $175 million of the $500 million Senate reduction would come from scrapping a planned deposit into the state’s “rainy day” budget stabilization fund.

Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, said Monday the uncommitted money could be used for tax relief, infrastructure investments or debt payments. Meekhof told reporters he’s personally interested in paying down state debt but noted Senate Republicans continue to discuss all three options.

“There’s no real consensus around any one of those things yet,” he said.

But a general government budget bill advanced Tuesday ditched the governor’s plan to deposit $20 million into the Michigan Infrastructure Fund, which Snyder’s called a “down payment” on future infrastructure investments. The bill would also scrap Snyder’s planned $25 million deposit into a drinking water fund that could be tapped in the case of emergencies like the Flint contamination crisis.

Sen. Jim Stamas, a Midland Republican who chairs the Appropriations Subcommittee on General Government, said that money could reappear in another part of the budget as negotiations continue.

Senate and House subcommittees are expected to continue work on individual budgets this week as legislators aim to wrap up the process by early June head of the new fiscal year, which starts in October.

“I always appreciate the governor taking a forward look at where we’re at, but as we looked at all of the projects that were proposed, we made the adjustment back down again,” Stamas said.