Whitmer signs billions of dollars in COVID relief, while vetoing curbs on her power

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed at least $2.5 billion in supplemental funding into law on Tuesday but vetoed a bill that barred the Department of Health and Human Services from closing in-person learning or canceling high school sports.

The signed legislation allows for the release of hundreds of millions of dollars in targeted aid for Michigan. It includes $283 million in federal emergency rental assistance, a $2.25 per hour wage increase for direct care workers, $555 million in testing and contact tracing funds, and $110 million for vaccine administration dollars, according to Whitmer's office.

One of Whitmer's vetoes was over boilerplate language inserted by the Republican-led Legislature involving roughly $840 million in federal K-12 funding. Whitmer's administration is reviewing the language to determine whether vetoing it means the federal cash can't be released, according to a Whitmer office statement.

If the administration can restore the funding without giving up the state's epidemic powers over in-person schooling and school sports seasons, the total amount of the signed supplemental bill would total about $3.6 billion.

The bill seeking to limit health department powers "is a reckless idea, poorly executed and poorly timed," Whitmer wrote in her veto letter. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks at a press conference on Feb. 24, 2021.

State Rep. Thomas Albert, R-Lowell, slammed the governor's vetoes, arguing they were proof she "doesn't care about you or if your livelihood survives the pandemic."

"If she cared about anything other than preserving her own self-declared power, she would not have vetoed so much of the Legislature’s $4.2 billion relief plan​​​," said Albert, chairman for the House Appropriations Committee.

Among the funds signed into law, about $600 million will go to food assistance, $150 million to the $2.25 wage increase for direct care workers and another $810 million in weighted cash distributions to public schools. The school cash kicks up to about $1.65 billion if the Whitmer administration can find a way to restore the $840 million attached to the vetoed emergency powers bill. 

About $136 million in state funding would be awarded to some districts if they 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, credit recovery programs as well as before and after school programs. 

Targeted vetoes

But the Democratic governor issued an additional four line-item vetoes within the supplemental budget bills because they weren't negotiated by Republican legislative leaders. The vetoes included $405 million in business tax relief, $87 million for private schools, $150 million into the state unemployment compensation fund and $10 million to aid parents who enroll their kids in summer school. 

If the administration cannot find a way to restore the $840 million, Whitmer's vetoes appear to total nearly $1.5 billion.

The state House held four veto override votes on Tuesday in an attempt to overturn each of the governor's line-item vetoes but failed to get the two-thirds majority needed for an override.

The funding bills received 85 and 77 aye votes when they initially passed in the House with the support of some Democratic lawmakers. On Tuesday, between 10 and 20 Democratic lawmakers changed their votes to oppose the veto overrides. 

“Their flip flop and the governor's vetoes are difficult blows for the thousands of Michigan families who were counting on them," said House Speaker Jason Wentworth, R-Farwell. "They put politics before people, but House Republicans will continue to do the right thing for the people we represent by fighting for the support they need to get back on their feet, get their kids back in school, and get Michigan back on track.”

Whitmer celebrated the release of some of the $5.6 billion in available federal funding for Michigan but called on the Legislature to "return to the table" to allocate the full amount in federal relief money. The Legislature's roughly $4.25 billion in supplemental spending — approved last week — included about $3.4 billion in federal relief funds. 

"The bills I received were not negotiated with me or my administration, and I continue to call on the legislature to ensure that we work together to ensure we maximize every penny that is available," Whitmer said in a statement.

"There were problems in the bills that I had to veto, and I expect the legislature to step up to fix the bill to allocate all of the money so we can get back to normal as soon as possible.” 

State Sen. Jim Stamas, R-Midland, said the governor chose "her absolute power" over money for schools and businesses.

“We have more to do, and I hope the governor will work with us and share her spending plans on how to best invest the remaining federal funds, instead of just asking us to give her a blank check," said Stamas, who is chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

The Small Business Association of Michigan criticized Whitmer's veto of business aid, arguing it wasn't tied to curbing her pandemic powers. 

"Gov. Whitmer has vetoed small business support multiple times, even as the state has received a windfall of financial support from the federal government," SBAM President Brian Calley said in a statement.

"Today’s veto sends a message that the state is not serious about the survival of small businesses."

$2B remains available

State Budget Director David Massaron asked the House and Senate to meet with him no later than Friday to negotiate and appropriate the remaining $2 billion in federal funding that still needs to be allocated. He said the vetoed funding represented "key points of difference between us" but not "an unwillingness to work together."

“Vetoes were necessary and now we need to collectively refocus efforts on the best way to get resources out the door to speed our recovery from the pandemic," Massaron said. 

The Michigan Housevoted 59-50 Tuesday on a fourth bill, also tied to about $347.3 million of the supplemental funding, that would limit state Department of Health and Human Services' epidemic orders to 28 days without authorization from the Legislature. Whitmer is expected to veto that legislation as well.

Several members of the House debated the merits of the bill, with state Rep. Laurie Pohutsky, D-Livonia, arguing it would "erode the ability of the Department of Health and Human Services to react to public health crises."

But Republicans argued it restored balance to a rule-making process that has been monopolized by the governor for nearly a year. 

"That’s one year that one person has dictated to the state what’s going to happen," said state Rep. Steve Johnson, R-Wayland. "That’s one year of you not representing your residents.”

In her veto letter regarding the provision that would have removed school closure authority from the state health department, Whitmer said she'd received encouragement from the Michigan Association for Local Public Health to veto the bill.

The bill would have moved authority to close schools to local public health officials, who would have had to comply with certain case and hospitalization benchmarks before closing schools.

"COVID-19 does not care about school district or local health department jurisdictional boundaries," Whitmer wrote. "As such, there may be times when a statewide order is necessary to protect Michiganders."

eleblanc@detroitnews.com