Shutdown showdown: Are budget plans 'backward' or 'responsible decisions'?

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News
The GOP-led Michigan House and Senate adopted Tuesday a $5.3 billion transportation budget, setting up a partial government shutdown showdown because of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's opposition to its one-time road funding hikes.

Lansing The GOP-led Michigan House and Senate adopted Tuesday a series of individual department spending plans including a $5.3 billion transportation budget, setting up a government shutdown showdown with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. 

In party-line votes, the Senate voted 22-16 to approve the transportation budget, while the House voted 58-51 to advance the roads and bridges plan. The spending blueprint will move to Whitmer's desk later this week, but it didn't stop her from accusing Republican leaders of "playing shell games" and promoting a "backwards plan to cut funding from our departments to pay for roads."

The Democratic governor and GOP leaders remain at an impasse over adding $400 million in one-time money for road and bridge fixes as opposed to a long-term funding plan — such as her proposed 45-cents-per-gallon increase in the state's fuel tax. 

“These budgets are a mess," Whitmer said in a Tuesday statement. "... The truth is, their transportation budget would only rebuild about 39 miles on the freeway and fix about four bridges in a state with over 1,000 bridges in poor condition.  

“The Republican budget cuts will restrict people’s access to health care, threaten our public safety and widen our skills gap. They’ll weaken our economy and make it harder for us to attract businesses and talent to our state. This backwards plan to cut funding from our departments to pay for roads is exactly how we got in this mess in the first place, and it won’t do a damn thing to actually solve the problem."

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey rejected the idea that one-time road funding would somehow damage the prospects for a long-term funding solution.

“I think it’s a ridiculous claim,” Shirkey told reporters Tuesday. “Remember we made a joint agreement — the governor, the speaker and I — to set aside a long-term road package to get the budget done so we could get it done and go back to that and I can’t wait to do so as soon as I hear back from her.”

House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, defended the department budgets as making "responsible, long-term decisions" reflecting the people's priorities, funding critical services and protecting "their household budgets" — an allusion to Whitmer's proposed 171% increase in the fuel tax.

"Even though the governor chose not to be a part of the process and hasn’t put in any work on the budget in weeks, representatives and senators from both parties banded together to do the right thing for the people we represent and get this done," Chatfield said.

The House and the Senate are clearing their schedules for the next two days to give staff time to review the budgets and forward them to the governor. Whitmer should have ample time to consider the budgets before the Sept. 30 deadline, Chatfield said.

“This could have been done weeks ago had she continued to work with us in good faith,” he said.

But Whitmer contended in her statement that the Legislature wasted time by taking a two-month summer break and attending a GOP conference last week that began on Friday — a traditional non-session day.

Dems: Stop road Band-Aids

Democrats criticized the transportation spending plan and the 2015 road funding law half-measures that are the equivalent of discovering "your two-carat wedding ring is actually cubic zirconium.

"Band-Aids and one time spending measures have not worked,” said Sen. Curtis Hertel, D-East Lansing. "...Record funding means nothing if you don’t address the full problem.”

Rep. Leslie Love, D-Detroit, encouraged her colleagues to vote no by arguing the transportation spending plan was "like putting Olay on the Wicked Witch's face."

"We need to raise $2.5 billion and this nickel and diming and one-time appropriations is not it," she said. 

But several House spending plans received support from some Democratic lawmakers. Even when the Senate approved budget bills along party-line votes, some Democrats still supported giving the reports immediate effect. 

Democratic lawmakers understood the time restraints facing the Legislature and chose to get the budgets to the governor as quickly as possible, Shirkey said of their support for immediate effect. “We did a little negotiating to make sure that we had an opportunity to ... be able to argue their differences," he said.

Decision time

The Legislature adopted more than a dozen department spending plans Tuesday, adding to the K-12 budget adopted last week. After a review by legislative clerks, the budgets will head to the governor's desk, where Whitmer could sign the budgets, veto them, line item veto certain sections or rule some items unenforceable. 

State leaders are working against the clock to have the budget in place by midnight Sept. 30 and avoid an Oct. 1 partial government shutdown.

The Legislature’s proposed department budgets tally to $59.9 billion, an increase of 2.8% over the current year budget, but slightly less than the $60.2 billion budget Whitmer proposed.

The Legislature’s $5.3 billion transportation budget includes $400 million in additional general fund dollars, an increase Whitmer has opposed because she said the one-time funding actually increases road costs, lowers the purchase power of the spending and ignores the need for a long-term road funding solution.

The $400 million would target $132 million to accelerate the Legislature’s 2015 road funding plan, $25 million for the local bridge program benefiting bridges that are not state-owned and $243 million to state-owned bridge projects.

About $68 million of the $243 million allocation would target four specific bridges that Whitmer visited while campaigning for her proposed 45-cents-per-gallon gas tax increase. They include the Miller Road Bridge in Dearborn, the South River Bridge in Harrison Township, Smith’s Bridge in Ferrysburg and Elm Street Bridge in Lansing’s REO Town.

The Legislature approved a $5.2 billion general government spending plan Tuesday, which includes the budgets for the departments of the Attorney General, Secretary of State and Civil Rights. The Senate adopted the budget in a 22-16 party line vote, while the House adopted the plan 59-49, with Democratic Reps. Sarah Anthony of Lansing and Karen Whitsett of Detroit joining Republicans. 

Sen. Jim Stamas, a Midland Republican, right, addresses issues as Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, a Flint Democrat, listens.

The budget would require the independent redistricting commission to deliver quarterly spending and activity reports to the Legislature instead of Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson. The spending plan also would reduce commission funding from Whitmer's proposed $4.6 million to $3.4 million.

The overall funding plan for Benson's office is "more or less consistent" with last year, said the department's spokesman Shawn Starkey. 

However, he said, "we have concerns about the long-term financial sustainability of cutting our general fund appropriation by 26% and replacing it with the Transportation Administration Collection Fund."

Attorney General Dana Nessel would be required to submit reports to the Legislature on her activities, including about the cost of certain investigations, lawsuit settlements above $5 million, lawsuit settlement proceeds and the status of the Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation Fund. The plan also mandates Nessel to appear before the Legislature within 30 days of filing a lawsuit against the federal government.

The spending plan adopted Tuesday that generated the closest approval vote was $1.6 billion in funding for higher education, representing a 0.9% increase. Critics called the spending hike inadequate to help make college more affordable, resulting in a 20-18 vote in the Senate and a 58-51 vote in the House.

About budget plans

Total budget: $59.9 billion

Insurance and Financial Services: $68.8 million

School Aid: $15.2 billion

Higher Education: $1.6 billion

Natural Resources: $439.7 million

Agriculture and Rural Development: $112.6 million

Corrections: $2.02 billion

Education: $13.6 million

Judiciary: $311 million

Licensing and Regulatory Affairs: $566.2 million

Community colleges: $414.7 million

Health and Human Services: $26.4 billion

Military and Veterans Affairs: $204.6 million

Transportation: $5.3 billion

State Police: $728.9 million

Environment, Great Lakes and Energy: $616.1 million

General Government: $5.2 billion

Source: Michigan House and Senate documents