Michigan Senate, House OK $6.5 billion in federal COVID relief funds

Craig Mauger Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — The Michigan Senate on Tuesday approved $4.3 billion in federal COVID-19 relief spending for schools, and the House authorized $2.2 billion in stimulus money focused on food and rental assistance.

The votes came as negotiations continue in Lansing over billions of additional dollars in federal aid and surplus funds. The money divvied up in the bills advanced Tuesday is viewed as the low-hanging fruit with more controversial decisions looming.

The Senate voted 35-0 to pass the education bill, which featured $840 million for school districts provided through the December round of coronavirus relief, signed by then-President Donald Trump, and $3.3 billion for districts through the March round of relief, signed by President Joe Biden.

Districts must use a portion of the funds to address learning loss, said a statement from Senate Appropriations Chairman Jim Stamas, R-Midland.

"This supplemental would invest $4.3 billion in federal assistance to help our children recover from any learning loss they experienced and to ensure that our schools and teachers have the resources necessary to provide their students with the instruction and support they need," Stamas added.

The legislation also featured about $180 million for nonpublic schools and $5.5 million for administrative funding allocated to the state Department of Education.

Sen. Rosemary Bayer, D-Beverly Hills, touted the bill, saying lawmakers should be proud of it.

"I look forward to continuing this work," Bayer said.

The vote was considered a sign of positive momentum as Republican lawmakers who control the state Legislature continue to negotiate with Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's administration over how to spend federal stimulus funds and budget surplus money.

The House followed suit later Tuesday when it passed a separate $2.2 billion supplemental in a 105-4 vote.  The bill would allocate the remaining $1.9 billion in food and rental assistance and emergency disaster response money from the December federal COVID-19 relief funds. 

House Appropriations Chairman Thomas Albert said the supplemental represented "time-sensitive" allocations of the federal money. 

“The people of Michigan faced some of the toughest COVID restrictions in the nation,” said Albert, a Lowell Republican. “Many are still struggling. This is another significant step to get families, communities and students the help they need after an extremely difficult year-and-a-half.”

It includes about $21 million in general fund money and $322 million from the March federal COVID-19 relief funds that the federal government set aside for local communities. 

Of the $1.9 billion in December funds, $1.5 billion in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program funding will increase monthly food aid by 15% through Sept. 30. Another $378 million will go to emergency rental and utility assistance and $65 million in federal funds to pay vendors emergency response efforts. 

Lawmakers are supposed to complete next year's state budget by July 1, but Stamas said Monday that he has "concerns" whether that will be possible.

The Senate has two weeks of session remaining before what is effectively a two-month summer break, and the House has three weeks remaining.

The next fiscal year begins Oct. 1.

GOP lawmakers and Whitmer have nearly $7 billion in federal stimulus money for state government available to allocate. On top of that, they have more than $2 billion in surplus money in the current fiscal year.  Combined, the stimulus funds for state government over which lawmakers have broad discretion and the surplus nearly match the entire general fund this year: $10.6 billion.

The wide majority of dollars approved by the Senate for school districts Tuesday was designated to districts based on federal law but had to be appropriated by the Legislature. The bill still needs to be approved in the Michigan House.

The proposal leaves about $370 million in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund dollars from the March federal stimulus still to be allocated.

Robert McCann, executive director of the K-12 Alliance of Michigan, called on lawmakers to take broader action on the state budget to provide schools certainty when making their financial plans for the coming year. Many districts have to wrap up their budget processes by the end of the month.

Superintendents are facing the choice of planning their budgets around "best case scenarios" or the "status quo," McCann wrote in a letter to legislators last week.

"Neither of these scenarios are in the best interest of our schools or our students, but without budget certainty coming from Lansing, their options are limited," he added.

Districts will be watching closely what happens with the other $370 million in federal stimulus money that is yet to be allocated, McCann said.