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Gov. Whitmer seeks $100M state stimulus to repair pandemic damage to economy

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer wants the Republican-controlled Legislature to pass a state-based stimulus plan of up to $100 million in response to the COVID-19 pandemic that's ravaged Michigan's economy.

The Democratic governor made the request in a letter to lawmakers this week as the federal government has struggled to approve a new round of financial relief. The idea could become a focus of negotiation during the lame-duck session — the period between the election and the end of the year when unresolved bills officially die and term-limited legislators depart.

Whitmer is seeking up to $100 million that "will provide direct financial support to the families and small businesses that have been hit hardest by the pandemic," according to her letter dated Wednesday.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer

"Michigan families are hurting, and while we must continue to advocate for meaningful support from the federal government, we simply cannot afford to wait," she wrote.

Amid a surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, the governor issued new restrictions to shutter movie theaters and bowling alleys and halt indoor dining at restaurants and bars beginning Nov. 18. Those closures are scheduled to lift after Dec. 8.

The virus initially peaked in Michigan in the spring. Now, the state has experienced six straight weeks with a record number of new infections, including 50,892 new cases reported last week.

Earlier this month, Justin Winslow, president and CEO of the Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association, said the closure of indoor dining at eateries would have a "catastrophic economic fallout." Last week, there were 32,499 initial jobless claims filed in Michigan, nearly double the 16,656 initial claims filed the week before, according to data from the U.S. Department of Labor.

Sen. Curtis Hertel, D-East Lansing, the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said the state stimulus could include aid for unemployed Michigan residents and targeted relief aimed at businesses that have been closed throughout the pandemic, such as entertainment venues.

"We have to decide whether we want those places to survive or not," Hertel said. 

State government's own financial picture, which has been struck by revenue losses because of the pandemic, could complicate its ability to provide financial relief. As Whitmer noted in her letter to lawmakers, Michigan is facing a shortfall of up to $1 billion next year.

On Sept. 30, the governor signed the state's current $62.8 billion budget into law. State leaders used federal aid, targeted cuts and account surpluses to avoid major spending reductions as part of that financial plan.

Hertel said state revenues have been coming in above projections, and there is money available to make a stimulus proposal happen. Past federal assistance was key to boosting Michigan's economy early this year, he contended.

However, Rich Studley, president and CEO of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, said lawmakers should ask Whitmer whether the three-week shutdown of some businesses and restaurants will continue after Dec. 8 before going along with the stimulus idea.

If the state intends to continue the closures, lawmakers should determine what COVID-19 metrics she's monitoring to determine when to lift them, Studley said.

"Are you going to continue to make a bad situation worse?” he said lawmakers should ask the governor.

The governor's letter touches on "some policy areas" that are also of interest to Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, his spokeswoman, Amber McCann, said Friday. McCann noted Shirkey and House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, pushed for additional federal assistance during a meeting with President Donald Trump last week.

"As the majority leader has said, this lame-duck session will be focused on an agenda of needs, not wants," McCann said.

The Michigan House and Senate have nine session days scheduled for the month of December, beginning Tuesday. The final scheduled session day is currently Dec. 17.

In the past, lame-duck sessions have brought deluges of high-impact bills approved by the Legislature as lawmakers looked to beat the end-of-year deadline. There could be less action this December, however, because of divided government with a Democratic governor and a GOP-controlled Legislature. Likewise, both the House and Senate will remain in Republican hands next term.

The following are some other topics expected to get attention in lame duck.

Unemployment extension

In her Wednesday letter, Whitmer also asked Republican lawmakers to sign off on a permanent extension of unemployment benefits from a maximum of 20 weeks to a maximum of 26 weeks.

Earlier this fall, the Legislature approved a temporary extension that expires at the end of the year.

"If we do not take bipartisan action now, thousands of Michiganders could lose benefits right after the holidays," Whitmer wrote in her letter. "Let us work together again to make this extension permanent."

But Studley, whose organization advocates on behalf of Michigan businesses, voiced concerns about the extension idea, citing a report released Wednesday that found the state's attempts to speed up unemployment payments during the pandemic likely exposed the system to fraud amounting to "hundreds of millions" of dollars.

Lawmakers need to increase accountability and transparency within the unemployment system, Studley said.

Election oversight

While there might not be votes on high-profile reforms just yet, Republican lawmakers plan to continue examining the state's election processes during the lame-duck season.

On Nov. 6, Chatfield and Shirkey announced joint oversight hearings would occur to bring "accountability" to the state's elections amid claims of "irregularities" pushed by Trump supporters.

The committees have already held two meetings, and the Senate Oversight Committee will take testimony at 10:15 a.m. Tuesday on the counting of absentee ballots at the TCF Center, where absentee ballots from across Detroit were tallied on Nov. 3.

Gravel mining limits

A hotly contested bill in the halls of the Capitol about gravel mining also could reach a crossroads during lame duck.

In September, the Senate Transportation and Infrastructure Committee approved legislation that would limit communities' ability to block gravel mining if a company met benchmarks, such as proof of the resource’s value and providing certain pollution protections if the mining projects are located near a pollution site.

Local government groups have opposed the proposal because they see it as taking away local decision-making. But gravel mining companies and some labor groups are pushing hard for it.

The bill is currently awaiting a vote from the full Senate.

Open legislative records

Lawmakers backing a long-sought-after reform to open the governor's office and Legislature to open records requests are hoping their bills are enacted in the final month of the year.

Michigan is one of two states that wholly exempt the governor's office and Legislature from laws allowing the public to obtain government records. Bills to change that fact have already passed the House and received a committee hearing in the Senate this term.

The key will be whether supporters of the legislation can convince Shirkey, who's voiced hesitation to the idea previously, to allow a vote on the Senate floor.

cmauger@detroitnews.com

Staff Writer Beth LeBlanc contributed.