Michigan House GOP plan would halt state decisions on school closures

Craig Mauger Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — A COVID-19 relief plan introduced by Michigan House Republicans on Wednesday aims to block Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's administration from making future decisions to stop in-person instruction and school sports.

The plan, which was revealed the same day as the Democratic governor's State of the State address, ties $2.1 billion in education funding to the approval of a law that shifts the power to issue orders affecting in-person learning and sports away from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, according to a press release.

Instead, local health departments would have the authority to make the decisions. House Appropriations Chairman Thomas Albert, R-Lowell, noted that dozens of school districts haven't had in-person classes since March.

Michigan State Capitol at night in Lansing on January 5, 2021.

"That’s hurting kids in ways we can’t even imagine, and not just academically,” Albert said. "The disruption of sports and other extracurricular activities also takes a major toll. It’s going to take years for some of these students to recover academically.

"I will do everything possible to get kids safely in the classroom now."

The Whitmer administration responded by saying House Republicans "are embracing the key elements" of the governor's COVID-19 recovery plan.

"Gov. Whitmer is ready and eager to work with Republicans in the Legislature to pass a bipartisan economic recovery plan that supports our small businesses and helps get families back on their feet," spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said Wednesday. "It is also crucial that we pass a plan that helps vaccinate our educators and puts more dollars into classrooms so we can get our kids back in school safely while staying focused on protecting public health.

"This is not the time for partisan games. It’s time to get to work.” 

The Legislature's plan would bar the state Department of Health and Human Services director from issuing epidemic orders that close schools to in-person instruction or prohibit school sporting events. It instead would put that responsibility in the hands of local health officials and would set COVID case, test and hospitalization rate benchmarks that would need to be met to trigger the local closure. 

The bill is tie-barred with a separate bill appropriating the education funding, meaning one cannot be adopted and signed without the other.

During a Wednesday hearing on the bills, Albert defended the legislation, arguing that the governor had jettisoned the bipartisan Return to Learn plan when she closed schools in November amid an uptick in cases. The Return to Learn plan had put those decisions in the hands of local communities.

"We had an agreement on a Return to Learn plan. It was very bipartisan and it got thrown in the trash in November. So this is why we're at the point we're at now," Albert said. "...It's about local control and having kids in seats."

On Wednesday, two Democratic lawmakers questioned the wisdom of tie-barring the education funding bill to the legislation that moves decision making on in-person learning and sports to local school districts. If the governor vetoes the second bill, it would take the federal education funding down with it, they argued.

The tie-bar puts pressure on the governor to work with the Legislature, a demand GOP lawmakers have been making with renewed vigor in the new year, said state Rep. Pam Hornberger, R-Chesterfield Township. 

"We can go back and forth on the discussion of whether or not the governor works with us or not, and we can argue about it in the press. But, quite frankly, this is what we need to do in order to get her to come to the table," Hornberger said. "I’m OK with it.”

In recent days, school administrators, parents and coaches have expressed frustration with Whitmer for suspending winter high school sports until Feb. 21.

The governor has cited the COVID-19 variant, which is believed to be more contagious and has begun spreading in Michigan, as her reason for the decision. At least 17 suspected cases of the variant have been found in Wayne and Washtenaw counties.

"Our job is to try to curtail the spread of this new variant in Michigan," Whitmer said Monday. "We've got to not let our guard down. We've re-engaged restaurants to a certain extent. That will increase the amount of people who are out and about. And I think it's important that we stay very focused on where the numbers are before we take additional steps."

$3.5B supplemental broken down

On Jan. 19, the governor proposed her own $5.6 billion COVID-19 relief plan, which would rely heavily on dollars from the federal government. Her plan features $2 billion for schools, $225 million for economic development programs and an extension of unemployment benefits.

The plan introduced Wednesday by House Republicans would appropriate $3.5 billion to a variety of business relief programs and education efforts.

The $2.1 billion education bill would provide $135 million for a voluntary, in-person summer semester for schools and credit recovery programs for students, and $21 million for teachers and support staff running the summer programs. Another $5.8 million would provide parents a $250 per child credit for transportation to and from the summer programs.

The legislation also would allocate $22.3 million for before- and after-school programs.

Schools could also receive up to $250 in additional assistance per student if they commit to reopening in-person instruction five days a week by Feb. 15, according to the plan. Whitmer has encouraged all districts to at least offer in-person instruction by March 1.

A separate supplemental bill would provide $415 million to help restaurants and other small businesses that lost revenue because of COVID-19 restrictions and $38.5 million would reimburse them for liquor license fees and health department inspections. Another $300 million would go to the state treasury where it would be used for 2020 business property tax reimbursement and $22 million for penalties and interest from 2020 property taxes. 

About $165 million would help families with rent and utility fees, and $510 million would go to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. 

The legislation would target $22 million for vaccine distribution and $144 million for COVID-19 testing.

Another $150 million would go to the state Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund, which is made up of businesses' unemployment taxes. The trust fund has run low during the pandemic, triggering an increase in unemployment taxes moving forward. 

The $150 million deposit potentially would forestall that increase, a contribution the GOP majority argues is merited given the money lost to fraudulent claims under Whitmer's administration. Another $55 million in the bill would help businesses facing higher unemployment taxes after the pandemic-triggered shutdowns and layoffs.