Lawmakers see Michigan budget progress, but obscure board a hurdle

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Lawmakers saw reason for optimism Thursday about efforts to break a logjam that's persisted since the GOP-controlled Legislature passed a $59.95 billion budget and Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer made $1.57 billion in changes to it.

Republicans and Democrats are debating the amount of power a governor should have to alter spending plans approved by the Legislature. One GOP senator called it a "make or break" issue for the state's budget negotiations.

Sen. Mike Shirkey.

Republicans said their focus is on limiting Whitmer's administrative powers to unilaterally alter their spending plans. Whitmer said she doesn't want her authority or the power of a future governor restricted.

“I think at some point we’re trying to legislate trust between everybody," said Sen. Curtis Hertel, D-Meridian Township, vice chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

"I think that this place has operated for the entire history of Michigan based on people being able to trust each other," he added. "I think we need to get there.”

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, said he had seen progress in the talks. And House Majority Floor Leader Triston Cole, R-Mancelona, said he was more optimistic this week than last week.

"It hasn’t gone backwards," Cole said. "If we’re not moving backwards, I think progress is hopefully within sight.”

Whitmer made more than 147 line-item vetoes, amounting to $947 million, to the nearly $60 billion spending plan adopted by the state Legislature last month, resulting in a $58.9 billion blueprint. On Oct. 1, the State Administrative Board, which is controlled by Whitmer and Democratic allies, made $625 million in transfers within the Legislature's approved budget.

As negotiations continue, initiatives that were vetoed by Whitmer hang in the balance. They include $1 million for an autism navigator program, $169 million for rural hospitals and $13 million for secondary road patrols, a state grant program that finances county deputies to patrol county and local roads outside of a city or village.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer along and with Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist announce their plan to expand the right to overtime for more Michigan workers during a news conference at the Fisher Building in Detroit on Thursday.

Then, there's road funding. Whitmer's administration continues to pursue $2.5 billion in new revenue to improve Michigan's roads through a 45-cent-a-gallon increase, while GOP lawmakers pursue funding shifts and other measures to generate such spending.

Before getting to the road issues, however, Republicans want to change the way the administrative board functions.

Shirkey and House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, floated the possibilities Thursday of legislatively capping the amount of money that can be transferred by the administrative board. Chatfield called it "common sense" and said it would still allow flexibility for the governor.

Shirkey mentioned legislatively safeguarding so-called "boilerplate" language that's inserted in budget bills to set how money is supposed to be spent.

"The goal is, I believe, to ensure that the governor, any governor, still has the right to make unilateral transfers in her budget when it’s necessary and amend it so that we preserve what the Constitution intends, and that is for the Legislature to have a serious position on spending," Shirkey told reporters. "Right now, the way the statute is written, there is no balance of power in it."

During a press conference in Detroit, Whitmer said she was willing to reach agreements with lawmakers that she wouldn't use her powers to shift money within upcoming budget bills she's negotiated with them. But she said she didn't want to limit the powers of the governor's office.

“I am very willing to say I am not going to use the ad board (administrative board) powers and we will live up to this agreement," she said. "They need to be able to do the same.”

Whitmer had multiple meetings with legislative leaders this week. And they're planning to meet again next week.

Republican lawmakers stressed Thursday that the two sides must resolve GOP concerns about the administrative board. They're worried that if they pass new spending bills to restore funding that was vetoed by the governor, she could simply use the administrative board to shift it elsewhere.

Sen. Tom Barrett, R-Charlotte, said while the administrative board is a nuanced matter, it's "make or break" for Republicans on future budget negotiations.

If the Legislature unanimously supported a budget initiative and overrode a veto by Whitmer, Barrett said, the governor could still use the administrative board to shift the money elsewhere. 

State Sen. Curtis Hertel

"It distorts that balance in a really profound way," Barrett said.

Michigan families aren't concerned about the administrative board's ability to transfer money, Hertel said. 

“I think we need to get back to the table and start actually working on the people’s problems, which I think are more important than the political problem we have here," he said.