Whitmer says she won't give up COVID-19 powers despite spending bills

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer labeled the Legislature's plan for handling billions of dollars in federal COVID-19 relief "nonsensical" and repeated Monday her pledge that she won't hand over unilateral powers to respond to the pandemic.

Appearing on MSNBC, the Democratic governor contended that Republican state lawmakers are holding back a portion of the federal funding and trying to use the money to get her to relinquish her administration's authority.

"They know that’s never going to happen," Whitmer told MSNBC's Stephanie Ruhle, indicating she will block provisions of a GOP-backed spending proposal.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer tours the security perimeter of the U.S. Capitol complex with members of the Michigan National Guard on Friday, March 5, 2021.

"For our Legislature to play this dangerous game with resources we desperately need is really disappointing," the governor added.

The GOP-controlled Legislature is in the process of sending Whitmer a $4.2 billion supplemental spending plan that ties nearly $1.2 billion in federal funding to measures that would limit the pandemic powers of her administration.

About $840 million of school district funding is tied to a separate bill that would move responsibility over school closures and high school sports from the state health department to local health departments. However, the policy would require local health officials to comply with testing, case and hospitalization benchmarks when making the decisions.

Another $347 million in COVID-19 epidemiology and lab capacity funding is tied to a bill that would limit the state health department's epidemic orders to no more than 28 days without legislative approval.

The plan "provides an opportunity for the governor to allow local health departments to make their own science-based decisions about whether their schools should be open — rather than leaving the entire state vulnerable to the governor’s unilateral decisions," said a statement from the office of House Speaker Jason Wentworth, R-Farwell.

"And it fights to give the people of Michigan — through their elected representatives in the Legislature — a voice in how long emergency health orders last," the statement added.

The House Appropriations Committee chairman was more combative, calling controversies linked to Whitmer "nonsensical."

“It’s nonsensical to arrange hush money payments to keep her health director and unemployment agency director quiet about what prompted their departures in the midst of a pandemic — but that’s exactly what she has done," Rep. Thomas Albert, R-Lowell, said in a Monday statement, referring to secret separation agreements signed by former Department of Health and Human Services Director Robert Gordon and former Unemployment Insurance Agency chief Steve Gray.

"It’s nonsensical to place COVID-positive patients into nursing homes with healthy residents — but that’s exactly what she did."

A political battle over the governor's executive powers has been playing out for nearly a year. Michigan reported its first cases of COVID-19 a year ago Wednesday.

The Michigan Association of Local Public Health opposes the proposal that would shift decisions on school closures to local health agencies. School district boundaries cross county lines and local health department jurisdiction boundaries.

The change would lead to "variation and confusion across the state," the association said in a press release last week.

On Jan. 19, 48 days ago, Whitmer proposed a $5.6 billion COVID-19 recovery plan based on the federal relief money.

cmauger@detroitnews.com

Staff Writer Beth LeBlanc contributed.