Whitmer to GOP lawmakers: Drop push to 'gut' governor's power

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — The fight between Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and GOP lawmakers escalated Tuesday as the two sides sparred over the governor's power to shift money within Legislature-approved spending plans.

In a letter, Whitmer formally asked House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, to give up their push to limit the governor's power to administratively transfer money. Within hours, however, House Republicans introduced bills that would do just that.

The moves are the latest examples of Michigan's leaders feuding over the State Administrative Board, an obscure panel controlled by Whitmer and Democratic allies that made $625 million in transfers earlier this month within the Legislature's approved departmental budgets.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has said the Legislature's budgets didn't do enough to fund schools, communities and roads.

"I urge you to choose a path of negotiation towards a responsible supplemental budget and forgo your attempt to gut state executive authority that's been around for 98 years and championed by (former Republican) Governor (John) Engler," Whitmer wrote in her letter. "We all hold office for a prescribed number of years, and I will not spend my time here diminishing the Office of the Governor for me or any of my successors, Democrat or Republican."

Later in the day, GOP lawmakers introduced bills that would limit the amount of money the administrative board can transfer in any one line item to $200,000 in a year, a policy that would have negated many of Whitmer's transfers. For a larger transfer to occur, the House and Senate would have to approve it.

Another bill would require the Legislature to send a budget to the governor by July 1, three months before the Oct. 1 constitutional deadline.

House Appropriations Chairman Shane Hernandez, R-Port Huron, said in a press release that Whitmer had "orchestrated an unprecedented power grab by abusing the authority" of the State Administrative Board.

"The governor wants to retain this power and use it again next year," Hernandez added. "The Legislature wants to get rid of it. This proposal meets in the middle to resolve this issue, retaining the State Administrative Board but building in protections for taxpayers and residents with proper oversight and accountability."

Speaker of the House Lee Chatfield, House Minority Leader Christine Greig, Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich and moderator Nolan Finley, editorial page editor, The Detroit News.

Asked why Republican lawmakers would introduce bills Whitmer could veto after legislative approval, Hernandez said the issue is an "ongoing conversation."

“I think we’re putting these ideas out on the table to discuss and everybody to take a look at," he said.

Republicans have said altering the board's power to move money within state budgets is a "make or break" issue on restarting budget negotiations and restoring some of the more than 147 line-item vetoes that Whitmer made to the Legislature's nearly $60 billion spending plan. The vetoes amounted to $947 million.

Whitmer has said the Legislature's budgets didn't do enough to fund schools, communities and roads. She has proposed a 45-cents-per-gallon fuel tax increase to boost road funding, but GOP leaders declared it dead on arrival, and House Democratic leader Christine Greig said in August the idea is an "extreme" that "won't happen."

Groups affected by the vetoes want their money restored as soon as possible. Vetoed initiatives included $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.

Shirkey will keep working on the matter "until we either take action with the governor or look at other items we might be able to pursue," Shirkey spokeswoman Amber McCann said Tuesday.

Shirkey and Chatfield had previously floated putting caps on the amount of money that can be transferred by the State Administrative Board. Shirkey has also mentioned creating protections for so-called "boilerplate" language that lawmakers add to budget bills to specify how money should be spent.

Whitmer said in her letter that she's asked the State Administrative Board to meet Thursday and a week later on Nov. 7. The board was already scheduled to meet on Nov. 5. If lawmakers began budget negotiations and agreed that certain transfers should be rescinded, the meetings would allow it to happen, according to Whitmer's letter.

In a response to Whitmer's letter, Shirkey and Chatfield said a meeting on Thursday to rescind all of Whitmer's transfers would be "the first crucial step in restoring balance to the budget process.

"As you know, our goal is to ensure our citizens are never again adversely impacted by board actions," their letter added.

The Democratic governor also said she's willing to refrain from transferring certain budget measures if she and Republicans can negotiate a deal.

Whitmer noted in her letter that there are six remaining days where both the House and the Senate are scheduled to be in session before a three-week fall break begins Nov. 8.

"If you accept my offer to negotiate in good faith, this matter could all be resolved in a matter of hours," Whitmer wrote. "If you decline my administration is prepared to move forward making the hard decisions necessitated by the budget as it now stands."