Michigan Senate approves $2B COVID plan, holds off on billions more

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — The Michigan Senate approved a $2 billion COVID-19 relief plan on Thursday with money for schools, testing and vaccine distribution, but intense debate focused on Republicans' decision to hold  off on allocating billions more in federal funding.

In January, Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer proposed a $5.6 billion relief plan with about $5 billion of the money coming from the federal government. But the GOP-controlled Legislature has decided to delay authorizing many of the dollars in order to have continued oversight over how they're spent.

"Our plan funds our state’s most pressing needs and saves additional resources so we can continue to assess the situation and respond to problems as they arise," said Sen. Jim Stamas, R-Midland, the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Senator Jim Stamas (R) listens as the Michigan Legislature holds its first of the 101st session at the Michigan State Capitol building in Lansing, Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2021.

But Republican lawmakers are also using their power over state spending for leverage as they push for Whitmer's administration to lift more COVID-19 restrictions that impact businesses and public gatherings. GOP legislators have been feuding with Whitmer over the state's approach to combating the virus for nearly a year.

Whitmer's spokesman Bobby Leddy said the Senate Republicans were leaving $4 billion on the table "in federal resources meant to get our kids back in school, keep families in their homes, and ramp up vaccine distribution and testing."

"The legislation includes language that could mean Michigan gets fewer vaccines from the federal government and hampers our ability to provide COVID-19 testing to student athletes, nursing home residents, and keep our state safe," Leddy said.

During a lengthy debate about the spending proposal on the Senate floor, Sen. Kim LaSata, R-Bainbridge Township, called on Whitmer to "open" the state.

Sen. Curtis Hertel, D-East Lansing, said the comment showed the delay in allocating more federal funds was not about the immediate needs of Michigan residents.

"Thank you for the crass ability to say that on the Senate floor," Hertel said in response to LaSata.

Likewise, Sen. Rosemary Bayer, D-Beverly Hills, criticized Republicans for holding back much of the federal support.

"It’s not our money to hold onto," Bayer said, adding that it's not the Senate's money to dribble out as if "we’re the parents handing out allowance."

The Senate approved two spending bills Tuesday in 20-15 votes, along party lines. One bill focuses on education, appropriating about $1.2 billion, including $932 million in federal relief funds. About $807 million of the federal money would go directly to public school districts under the Senate plan.

It includes $86 million earmarked for nonpublic schools, $90 million for kindergarten through eighth-grade summer school programs, $45 million for high school credit recovery programs, $21 million for payments to staff operating summer school programs, $20 million for school mental health services and $11 million for benchmark assessments

The other spending bill allocates $727 million through the Department of Heath and Human Services and the Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity, including $672 million in federal funding. Of the dollars, $110 million is for vaccine distribution, $184 million is for COVID-19 testing and $282 million is for emergency rental assistance.

The rest of the funds — about $150 million — would go to extend a COVID-19 direct care worker hazard pay adjustment through Sept. 30 and increase the enhancement from $2 per hour to $2.25 per hour. The adjustment is currently set to expire on Sunday.

In addition, the proposal includes a controversial provision that bars the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services from using "race, gender, color, national origin, religion, sex and socioeconomic status" as factors in determining how to distribute COVID-19 vaccines. Republicans have argued that the decisions should be made based primarily on age and the risks surrounding someone's job.

But the state health department has been using a "social vulnerability index" from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to help adjust the allocations of vaccine "to ensure that communities at most risk receive vaccine during times of scarcity," said Lynn Sutfin, the department's spokeswoman.

Democrats tried to remove the provision, but their amendment failed in a 16-19 vote. Sen. Wayne Schmidt, R-Traverse City, joined Democrats in backing the amendment.

Also, Democratic lawmakers called on Republicans to spend more of the dollars provided to Michigan by the federal government.

Rosemary Bayer, D-Auburn Hills

Through federal funds, Whitmer's plan included $660 million for rental assistance, $1.7 billion for education, $574 million in testing tracing efforts and $2 billion in food assistance.

But Stamas contended that the food assistance program had enough money in it currently and would be revisited down the road.

“Why not now?” Hertel asked.

Sen. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, unsuccessfully pushed for the Senate to allocate more federal rental assistance dollars. He proposed the full $660 million appropriation. The emergency is now, he said.

“Let’s stop using families facing evictions as political pawns," Irwin said.

The Senate spending plan now has to go to the House, which approved its own $2.1 million proposal on Feb. 4. House Appropriations Chairman Thomas Albert, R-Lowell, said Wednesday that the House and Senate are moving as "fast as we can."

"This is what the normal legislative process is," Albert said. "This is the way that legislation should work," Albert said. "There should be dialogue between two different chambers. And hopefully, we'll have an agreement soon."