Whitmer accuses GOP of 'Trump-style shutdown' games

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News

Lansing — Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's office on Friday blasted Republican plans to advance 2020 budget bills without input from her administration or a long-term road funding deal, accusing them of playing "Trump-style shutdown" games.

The comparison came after House and Senate GOP leaders on Thursday agreed to their own spending targets and on Friday morning announced plans to begin conference committees next week.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has vowed to veto any budget without a “real” road funding solution.

Officials must have a consensus budget in place by the end of September to avoid a partial government shutdown, but Whitmer has vowed to veto any budget without a “real” road funding solution.

Republican lawmakers have trounced her proposal for a 45-cents-per-gallon fuel tax increase and accused her of delaying the budget process by sticking to it. They have not publicly offered an alternative road funding plan but argue she rejected various ideas in closed-door meetings.

“All along, the Senate promised to deliver a budget on time and we intend to keep that promise,” Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, said in a statement announcing plans for legislative action. “Discussions on roads with my governor and legislative leaders can continue, but the Senate will not tie the fate of the budget to a deal on roads.”

House Appropriations Chairman Shane Hernandez of Port Huron said the GOP budget plan will include significant funding increases for roads and schools, suggesting Republicans will propose to reroute money from other departments that may face spending cuts.  

Whitmer has hammered legislative leaders for a recent two-month summer recess, arguing lawmakers should have stayed in Lansing to continue working on the budget.

But Hernandez accused her of delaying the process by “insisting on an unrealistic, wildly unpopular" gas tax proposal.

“We can’t wait on her any longer,” he said in a statement. “We are moving forward as quickly as possible to approve a final budget and send the plan to her desk.”

Budget spending targets are typically set in negotiation with the administration, and Whitmer spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said the Legislature's plan for unilateral action increase the odds of a government shutdown, which she said the governor "has been working hard to avoid."

“These Republican games are leading the state toward a Trump-style shutdown by them taking actions that don’t include input from the Executive Office," Brown said. "“Again, the governor remains committed to working with anyone who wants to work with her on real solutions to get the budget done.”

President Donald Trump’s insistence on funding for his planned Mexico border wall was a key factor in a federal government shutdown that lasted 35 days in late 2018 and early 2019.

"The Legislature is taking action to give Michigan students, families and workers the budget they need before it's too late," said Gideon D'Assandro, a spokesman for House Speaker Lee Chatfield, suggesting Whitmer has "refused to accept" anything but her fuel tax plan.  

"Governor Whitmer is the only one talking about a government shut down right now as she continues to hold the budget hostage over her extreme gas tax agenda."

Whitmer and legislative leaders have met repeatedly in recent weeks, and the governor has continued to encourage Republicans to publicly unveil their own ideas to fix the state's crumbling roads.

“It’s a responsibility of anyone in a leadership position to come with an alternative, not to just fold their arms and say, ‘We can’t do this,’” Whitmer said Tuesday. “How are we going to get it done? because we all recognize the problem is real.”

Whitmer campaigned on a pledge to “fix the damn roads,” and the budget process is a key point of leverage for her in negotiations with a Republican-led Legislature. But Democratic House Leader Christine Greig last week called the governor’s 45-cent fuel tax increase plan “probably the extreme that won’t happen.”

The fuel tax was a lynch pin of the $60.2 billion budget Whitmer proposed in March. The hike would raise $2.5 billion a year by 2021, generating $1.9 billion in new road funding and freeing up another $600 million to boost spending on schools and other priorities.

The House and Senate approved separate budget bills in June that did not include the new revenue.

Shirkey said last month he expected a final road funding deal would include a gas tax increase of less than 10 cents spread out over three years. He’s also pushing a plan to refinance debt in the state’s teacher pension system to free up cash, which Whitmer has said she does not want to do.

“With all due respect to my governor’s desire to see roads and a budget plan move in concert, we can no longer keep our schools and municipalities waiting while my governor rejects road proposals,” Shirkey said Friday.

“We would welcome input from the administration should my governor choose to present budget options that are not dependent upon her 45 cent tax increase.”

Shirkey has called talk of a potential government shutdown a “fabricated crisis by my governor to try to tie in roads to the budget."

Budget Director Chris Kolb two weeks ago began “contingency planning” for a potential government shutdown by asking department directors to identify essential and non-essential employees.

“We’re just preparing right now to make sure that we can do this in a very rational and timely way,” Kolb told reporters last week.

The state has more than 45,000 full-time employees, many of whom could face temporary layoffs in the event of a shutdown.

The budget office is currently reviewing department recommendations “as to which functions should remain operational during a shutdown” and will make final recommendations to Whitmer’s office next week, spokesman Kurt Weiss said Friday.

"We are looking at this through the lens of which functions are most closely tied to protecting the safety, health and welfare of the public,” he said. “Once we get final decisions on those functions, we will then start the work of determining which state employees will need to report to work on October 1 if there is a shutdown.”