Michigan House speaker wants Legislature involved in decisions on COVID-19 'path out'

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — The Republican leader of the Michigan House, Speaker Jason Wentworth, says he wants Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer involved in decisions on divvying up billions of dollars in federal relief money, but the Legislature needs a say in how the state handles the end of the pandemic.

Wentworth, R-Farwell, made the comments Friday during a virtual event organized by the Detroit Regional Chamber. He appeared to express a desire for bipartisan cooperation, something that has been infrequent in Lansing in recent months.

"When the three branches are at the table negotiating, there are better outcomes for the state of Michigan," Wentworth said, apparently referring to the House, the Senate and the governor's office. 

"When it's just two branches or one acting unilaterally, we're not going to have better outcomes," he added.

Jason Wentworth elbow-bumps Donna Lasinski as the lawmakers start the Michigan Legislature's 101st session at the Michigan Capitol in Lansing on Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2021.

Republicans currently control the House and Senate.

Wentworth took part in the chamber discussion with the three other leaders of the state Legislature: Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, and House Minority Leader Donna Lasinski, D-Scio Township.

The event occurred a day after Whitmer unveiled her plan for phasing out restrictions aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19 as vaccination rates increase. Under her plan, limitations on businesses and gatherings would be gradually lifted as the state moves from 50% of adult residents with the first vaccine dose to 70%.

Two weeks after 70% of Michigan adults have their first dose, the administration would end the statewide epidemic order on masks and gatherings, according to the plan.

Both Wentworth and Shirkey expressed support for the ideas behind the plan but argued that it needed more details about what happens if the state can't reach the 70% threshold for vaccinations or a vaccine-resistant variant takes hold.

A new variant that the vaccine doesn't protect against could reignite a year-long fight over whether Whitmer's administration should make decisions about responding to the virus unilaterally or negotiate the policies with Republican lawmakers.

"If we were to plateau, what are we going to look at as far as the infection rates and other things to not go backward, to continue to go ahead?" Wentworth asked.

But Lasinski, the Democratic leader of the House, said if the state plateaued with its vaccination rate below 70%, officials would need to work together to share more information about the vaccines.

The debate over how to relax restrictions as vaccination rates increase occurs as lawmakers are also weighing how to allocate billions of dollars that are coming to the state through the American Rescue Plan, a federal stimulus program, passed by Congress in March. The $18 billion haul includes about $5.7 billion to Michigan in flexible relief dollars, $4.4 billion for local communities and $3.9 billion for schools

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake reacts to Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's second State of the State speech in this Jan. 30, 2020, file photo.

Wentworth said he wants Whitmer at the negotiating table when lawmakers, who will appropriate the money, make their decisions.

"At the same time, the Legislature has to be at the table in the path out," Wentworth said. "How are we going to get out of this pandemic? What happens next month or two months or three months if we have a variant or a vaccine-resistant variant?"

Shirkey said his focuses for the money include roads, bridges, water systems, sewer systems, education, access to broadband and business recovery. He specifically highlighted bridges and dams.

"Those are the areas where we have a really difficult time aggregating enough money on an ongoing basis to take care of those," Shirkey said. "They always get Band-Aided."

Lasinski said the buckets Shirkey outlined are "absolutely the priority across our quadrant."

The Senate Democratic leader, Ananich, credited Wentworth and Shirkey for calling for metrics to guide decisions on COVID-19 restrictions, as Whitmer outlined Thursday.

"For a long time, they've been articulating the need for a metric-based system to exit out of these pandemic restrictions, and I think their leadership and their voice on that helped move the governor in this direction," Ananich said.

As of now, about 4 million Michigan residents, about 50% of the adult population, have received at least their initial dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, according to state data.