Michigan Senate OKs $4.2B in supplemental aid with limits on epidemic powers

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

The Michigan Senate approved Tuesday about $4.2 billion in supplemental spending, a large portion of which was tied to two measures that would limit the epidemic powers of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's administration. 

The Senate unanimously passed bills that would allocate $1.9 billion in education funding and $2.3 billion for the state health department's continued response to the pandemic and unemployment funds. About $3.4 billion of the funding is in the form of federal relief funds approved by Congress in December. 

About $840.7 million of school district funding is tied to the fate of a bill that would prohibit the state Department of Health and Human Services from closing schools to in-person instruction or banning school sports under COVID-19 epidemic order. The bill moves the responsibility instead to the local health department, which would have to comply with certain case, testing and hospitalization  benchmarks when considering a closure. 

The Michigan Capitol is pictured on Tuesday. June 23, 2020.

About $347.3 million in COVID epidemiology and lab capacity funding is tied to the signing of a bill that would limit the state health department to issuing emergency orders that last no longer than 28 days without approval from the Legislature. 

The funding bills passed the Senate unanimously Tuesday while the bills encroaching on the administration's epidemic powers passed along party lines. The House is expected Wednesday to vote on the measures.

Whitmer's office did not immediately return an email seeking comment on the proposals.

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The Democratic governor and Republican-led Legislature have been debating the proper allocation of the federal COVID relief funds for almost two months. Whitmer recommended approving all $5.6 billion of the funds immediately, while the Legislature has proposed smaller, incremental amounts tied to limits on the executive branch's pandemic authority. 

Whitmer's use of the state health department's pandemic authority after her emergency executive orders were overturned by the Michigan Supreme Court in October was a "loophole only a lawyer could love," Sen. Aric Nesbitt, R-Lawton, said Tuesday.

Instead of working with the Legislature after the Supreme Court decision, the governor focused "on finding another way to bypass a co-equal branch of government," he said. The "loophole" must be closed, Nesbitt said.

Sen. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, called the Legislature's efforts to tie funding to curbs on the administration's epidemic powers a "political poison pill." He suggested an unsuccessful amendment that would have broken one of the tie bars. 

"My amendment is to put our people first and get our needy residents out from the middle of this political crossfire," Irwin said. 

Sen. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, argued the measures limiting the governor's authority would bring balance between the two branches of government and would ensure the people's voice would be heard through the Legislature. 

"Here, we believe that the people are in charge," McBroom said.

The funding bill allocates about $110 million toward vaccine distribution, $547 million to COVID-19 testing, $600 million toward food assistance, $33 million toward mental health and substance use disorder grants.

Some of the vaccine money is contingent on a legislative transfer request being submitted to lawmakers and weekly reports from the state health department on how the vaccine is being distributed. The funding also requires officials to inform a COVID vaccine recipient if and how aborted fetal tissue or embryonic stem cell derivation lines are used in a given vaccine.

The funding bill would allocate $150 million toward direct care work pay, increasing direct care worker hazard pay from $2 more per hour to $2.25 more per hour and extending the increase through Sept. 30.

Another $150 million would be deposited into the Unemployment Insurance Agency Trust Fund and $220 million toward emergency rental assistance. Roughly $322 million would offset property taxes and interest and penalties on property taxes, $50 million would offset food and liquor licensing fees and $55 million would provide relief for unemployment insurance taxes. 

The school funding bill would allocate about $1.65 billion in emergency funding to schools based on a formula weighing each district's needs, $840.7 million of which would be tied to the measure limiting emergency orders to 28 days.

Another $136 million in state school aid money would be allocated to district's for which the funding formula allocated less than $450 per pupil. That funding would require districts to offer at least 20 hours per week of in-person instruction by March 22. 

Another $160 million in federal funds would go toward K-8 summer programs, high school credit recovery programs and before and after school programs. About $86 million in federal funds would go toward nonpublic schools, $21 million for teachers and staff who work summer programs and $10 million for parent costs related to summer programs. 

The supplemental approved Tuesday comes in quite a bit higher than what was initially proposed in the House and Senate plans, but lower than the $5.6 billion requested by Whitmer in January.

The Senate last week approved an initial $1.2 billion spending bill and tied about $727 million in supplemental spending for vaccine distribution, testing and emergency rental assistance to restrictions that would stop the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services from using race, gender or "socioeconomic factors" in deciding how to distribute the vaccines. That condition was dropped Tuesday.

In early February, the House approved a $3.5 billion spending plan that included the tie between education funding and the conditions that would move power over school closures and students sports from the governor to local health officials.