Budget frustration welcomes Michigan lawmakers home for holiday

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — A sense of frustration about gridlock in Lansing has greeted Michigan lawmakers at home for fall breaks during a two-month budget standoff.

In coffee hours, meetings with local officials and conversations with constituents, lawmakers say they're hearing concerns about nearly $1 billion in budget vetoes made by Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer at the end of September. They're concerns that lawmakers fear will only grow if the stalemate continues into December.

"The cuts are just items on paper for now," Rep. Aaron Miller, R-Sturgis, said of some of his constituents' feelings.

But the House Appropriations Committee's majority vice chairman added, "I think December is that come-to-Jesus moment when stuff starts hitting the fan."

A Democratic group is challenging Michigan’s restrictions on transporting voters to the polls and helping people apply for absentee ballots, asking a federal judge to block enforcement of the laws.

The Detroit News interviewed a dozen lawmakers this past week about what they're hearing from constituents on the budget standoff. Answers ranged from blame to a lack of interest.

"They really don’t care whose fault it is," said Rep. Sara Cambensy, D-Marquette. “They’re sick of the finger-pointing, and at this point they want us to send the message to the three people negotiating to get it done."

Cambensy was referring to Whitmer, House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, who have failed to reach a deal to restore some or all of the money Whitmer vetoed.

In addition to her $947 million in vetoes, Whitmer used her administrative powers to make $625 million in administrative transfers within the GOP-controlled Legislature's departmental budgets on Oct. 1.

Whitmer's administration argue the budgets didn't do enough to fund schools, communities and roads and hoped the moves would bring Republicans back to the negotiating table. Some of the transfers resulted in money getting cut from nonprofits and other groups and Republican priorities. 

The transfers set off an intense debate in Lansing over the State Administrative Board, which Whitmer used to make the transfers. Republican lawmakers have been pushing to limit the board's authority before restoring any of the money that Whitmer vetoed.

As the stalemate lingers, funding for rural hospitals, secondary road patrols, nonprofit social service organizations, charter schools and transportation infrastructure remain on the cutting room floor.

Lawmakers are scheduled to return from their fall breaks on Dec. 3, when they'll again begin searching for a way to resolve the standoff.

Frustration in U.P.

Constituents in the Upper Peninsula have four issues that continue to generate frustration and concern, said Sen. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan. They include money vetoed for rural hospitals, isolated schools, secondary sheriff’s patrols and revenue sharing. 

“Folks up here are frustrated with her,” McBroom said about Whitmer. “The potential of losing schools and hospitals are real, and the governor is the one who will have to come and compromise on this.”

Sen. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan

The consequences of the vetoes and the challenges standing in the way of restored funding are well understood among constituents, McBroom said. Many in his district are somehow connected to the various small governments, schools or hospitals at stake in the budget battle. 

“We need promises that she isn’t going to just move the money if we give it to her,” McBroom said. “And her handshake isn’t worth very much right now.”

McBroom’s Senate district overlaps with Cambensy’s House district, and both Yoopers have heard similar complaints from constituents hit hard by the cuts to rural Michigan.

But Cambensy said the constituents calling her are tired of the political obstacles blocking restored funding, be they a 45-cents-a-gallon gas tax hike or an obtuse administrative board transfer. 

There is no reason the Legislature should have gone on break without a solution in place, Cambensy said. Lawmakers have forgotten for whom they work, she said, and what’s happening in Lansing is wrong.

“I don’t think people should have to sit through all the bickering and the arguing and who one-upped the other; it’s not important to them,” Cambensy said. “Nobody cares at this point. Get it done. Because we already have the bills that both sides agree on.”

Who gets the blame?

Folks in northeastern Michigan’s 106th District are unimpressed by the gridlock in Lansing, which they liken to Washington, D.C., said Rep. Sue Allor. 

But the Wolverine Republican has also received messages urging her to “stand firm” on a supplemental bill to restore vetoed funding if it at all diminishes the chances of a 45-cent gas tax increase, she said. 

“Bottom line, all they know is the governor wanted a 45-cent gas tax increase,” Allor said of the budget badminton this year. 

“That was something that was not affordable,” she said about the proposed 171% hike in the 26.3-cent gas tax. “It was something that would have had a significant impact, and they didn’t want it.”

Residents in Metro Detroit’s 40th House district are equally concerned about transportation and other infrastructure funding, said Rep. Mari Manoogian, D-Birmingham. 

But, unlike Allor's district, Manoogian’s Oakland County constituents supported a road funding plan that included new revenue and understood Whitmer’s 45-cent proposal was a place to begin negotiations, she said.

Mari Manoogian, D-Birmingham

“Especially given the Senate majority leader’s comments in the last week, it’s been pretty obvious to my constituents that this is the usual partisan gamesmanship,” Manoogian said.

“I think that they believe that a lot of the holdup and a lot of the bad faith negotiations are rooted in sexism,” she said.

Senate Majority Leader Shirkey reportedly told a group of college Republicans earlier in November that Whitmer and Democratic lawmakers are "on the bat s--- crazy spectrum." The comments generated a backlash among Democrats and prompted Shirkey express regret at the "flippant remark and a poor choice of words."

Sen. Adam Hollier, D-Detroit, said he’s heard a lot from constituents about roads. Hollier would introduce a bill to increase the gas tax by 45 cents per gallon “today, tomorrow, next week,” he said.

“I think she’s handling it the only way she could,” Hollier said of Whitmer.

Others weren't so kind. Sen. Peter Lucido, R-Shelby Township, said he's still awaiting for answers on why Whitmer made her vetoes in the first place.

"How has that pushed Michigan forward?” Lucido asked of the vetoes. "We deserve that answer."

Looking to Legislature

Two lawmakers used similar sports analogies about the budget but arrived at conclusions that split along partisan lines.

Sen. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, said when Whitmer announced her vetoes, constituents asked what the governor had done and why. In the two months since, focus has turned to the GOP-controlled Legislature, he said.

“The ball has been bouncing on the Legislature’s side of the court for so long that most of the folks that are looking for solutions know that those solutions have to come from the Legislature,” Irwin said.

But Rep. Jack O’Malley, R-Lake Ann, said his constituents are focused on Whitmer. Her vetoes affected both Democratic and Republican voters in his northern Michigan district.

“To use a sports analogy, the ball is in her court,” O’Malley said.

O’Malley was between meetings with constituents on Tuesday when he gave his thoughts on the budget standoff. He had a meeting at a municipal building in Manistee and was about to hold another at a senior center in Scottville.

“The budget always comes up,” O’Malley said. “I have heard from both Republicans, Democrats, independents. They’re not happy with the vetoes.”

A freshman legislator from Michigan’s Thumb, Rep. Gary Eisen, R-St. Clair Township, said he has confidence in legislative leadership’s ability to negotiate a way out of the problem, a trust he conveyed to the county sheriff after he “took an earful” on the cuts made to secondary road patrol funding. 

“We supplied in my opinion a very good budget to the governor,” Eisen said. “We did our job to fund the government. Now it’s out of my hands.

“It’s more of a political game now. And I don’t play politics.”