Whitmer outlines supplemental aid priorities after cuts; GOP: 'Budget is done'

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

A day after cutting $947 million and ruling 70 budget items "unenforceable," Gov. Gretchen Whitmer laid out her priorities for a supplemental budget that she hopes could patch holes in the nearly $59 billion budget and repair relations with the GOP-led Legislature.

“I can only clean up so much of this unilaterally,” Whitmer said.

But Republican legislative leaders said Wednesday they consider the budget done, although the Senate majority leader left the door open for a supplemental bill if the governor told them what she had mistakenly line-item vetoed.

Whitmer did not give a potential dollar amount for the potential supplemental, but said the Legislature's one-time $400 million allocation to roads "cobbled together" from varying department budgets is largely equal to what's needed in a supplemental budget. The governor vetoed $375 million of the extra road aid allocation Tuesday and transferred the remaining $25 million to public transit. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer meets with reporters at the state Capitol on Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2019, to discuss her priorities for a potential supplemental spending bill.

The supplemental priorities detailed by the Democratic governor Wednesday included increased funding for prisons, cyber security, health and human services, literacy and skills gap programs. Funding those budgets are Whitmer's first priorities, budget office spokesman Kurt Weiss said, but a supplemental budget bill could restore many of the 147 items vetoed.

“We’ve got to put our differences aside and get back to negotiating these fundamentals,” Whitmer said, noting she is working with Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr. to construct language for the basis of the supplemental.

But the Democratic governor will meet resistance from House Speaker Lee Chatfield when she meets Thursday with legislative leaders. Chatfield, R-Levering, told WJR’s Frank Beckmann on Wednesday that he considered the budget finished.

"After three weeks of not hearing from her on budget negotiations, she went to the media with her demands," said Chatfield spokesman Gideon D’Assandro following Whitmer's press conference.

"The speaker has not seen her list. But he is shocked she is using children’s safety, road repairs, veterans benefits and people with autism as political pawns for leverage to help her get her pet projects and a gas tax hike."

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey agreed Wednesday.

"The budget is done," said Shirkey, R-Clarklake, but if the governor "thinks that she made a mistake with her red pen she can let us know which ones she'd like to have back."

All options are on the table going forward, including giving the nearly $1 billion in vetoed money back to taxpayers, he said.

"If the money is available and not being deployed, I think that is one of the most responsible things we could do," Shirkey said.

With the line-item vetoes, the fiscal year 2020 budget ended up being $58.95 billion, about 1.6% lower than the $59.9 billion plan approved by the Legislature and more than 2% less than the $60.2 billion initially proposed by Whitmer.

'Budget is not finished'

Lawmakers understandably "have some strong feelings" about the actions the governor took Tuesday, but legislators' work on the state budget is not finished, said Hertel, D-East Lansing. 

"There's been trust broken on both sides and it's going to be hard to trust each other for a while," Hertel said. "But we have a responsibility to the Michigan people to actually get back to the table and work together to solve this problem."

A lot of people are going to feel the effects of Whitmer’s budget cuts, Chatfield told Beckmann after the WJR radio host asked about a $1 million line-item veto Whitmer made to the Autism Alliance of Michigan and how he felt as the parent of a child with autism.

But the speaker indicated that the time to negotiate on the budget was in September, when he and House Democrats struck bipartisan spending deals in Whitmer’s absence.

While Whitmer’s budget vetoes and transfers have drawn criticism for rural-focused and northern Michigan-targeted cuts in an attempt to leverage Republicans in those districts, her veto pen also jettisoned some items that are largely uncontroversial and, in some cases, bipartisan. 

Among the vetoes were $14.8 million to county jails, $15 million in grants to address chemical contaminants at municipal airports, a one-time $750,000 allocation to an opioid transitional housing program, $37.5 million for the Pure Michigan campaign and $37.2 million for the Going Pro skilled work training program.

Other vetoes axed $175,000 in one-time refugee assistance, $24 million for rural hospitals, $95 million in increased Medicaid reimbursements to rural hospitals, $4 million for county veterans services and $10 million for school emergency phone system grants.

But it was the governor’s $1 million in cuts to the Autism Navigator — a program that serves as the "glue" between individuals with autism and their case management plans and service providers — that received heightened attention on Wednesday.

The cut would eliminate roughly one-third of the Autism Alliance of Michigan's annual budget and decimate the program itself, for which the alliance provides a 50% match, said Colleen Allen, the alliance's president and CEO.

"I think its political football, I really do," Allen said. "I want to believe the governor wanted to (fund the program), and it maybe got thrown into these other items as a bargaining chip."

Will vetoes prompt more aid?

At first glance, the strategy of vetoing funding also favored by the governor to bring the GOP back to the negotiating table appears ineffective and "certainly new," said Matt Grossmann, director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University. 

"If we don’t get another supplemental, which I think is definitely a possibility, then she will have achieved more of the Mackinac Center’s objectives than Republican governors," Grossmann said, of the fiscally conservative think tank in Midland that has opposed Pure Michigan spending. 

Even if those vetoes bring the GOP back to the table, the short-term effects on the vetoed programs could be a lasting liability for the governor and may not have been worth the risk, he said.

"I would be very surprised if this led to a gas tax increase that wouldn’t have otherwise come about before the vetoes,” Grossmann said.

The priorities outlined in Whitmer’s revised supplemental budget plan include the restoration of funding for roughly 4,000 new GPS tethers for paroled prisoners to comply with Verizon’s switch from a 3G to a 4G network.

The funding for the tethers was re-appropriated by the Legislature via department work project budgets, but Whitmer vetoed the move Tuesday after raising concerns about changing the purpose of restricted funds.

The failure to fund the tether replacement by the end of November would threaten public safety in Michigan, Whitmer said. 

“It is a question of safety,” she said. “The reckless cuts undermine the core mission of the criminal justice system which is … for people to pay a punitive price but also for rehabilitation.”

The Corrections Department also could see the restoration of funding for its education programs, which advocates have said reduce recidivism rates. In total, the Corrections Department has said the Legislature’s budget proposal would chop $47 million.

Whitmer also said she wants to replenish some of the $53 million reduced from the Department of Technology, Management and Budget in an attempt to avoid up to 150 layoffs and increase cyber security.

“We thwarted a serious cyber attack just within the last two weeks and to cut back on cyber security when the whole world is doing more on that front I think is poorly informed and downright dangerous,” Whitmer said.

Other supplemental priorities would include additional funding for the Department of Health and Human Services, literacy coaches, and skills training programs at community colleges.

Whitmer criticized the Legislature’s lack of funding for the implementation of its Healthy Michigan work requirement law, and said the $15.1 million she transferred via the State Administrative Board Tuesday was not enough to meet the required funding. 

“Triaging needs through the transfer process is something that we have some authority to do, but I can’t add to the budget,” the governor said.

The Legislature provided $10 million for the implementation of the work requirements through lapsed funds within the department, but "perhaps she doesn't care for the way that we found the $10 million," said Amber McCann, a Shirkey spokeswoman. 

Whitmer’s calls for literacy funding come a day after she vetoed roughly $15 million the Legislature had allocated for summer school reading programs for third graders who were found to lack proficiency in reading as required by the state's third grade reading law. 

Chatfield indicated he would pose at least one question to Whitmer when he and Shirkey; House Minority Leader Christine Greig, D-Farmington Hills, and Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, meet Thursday at the quadrant meeting.

He plans to ask Whitmer “how she spent her vacation the last three weeks,” Chatfield said.