Whitmer to deem 'a number' of COVID budget provisions unconstitutional

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer plans to declare multiple provisions inserted in the state's next budget aimed at limiting the government's response to the COVID-19 pandemic unenforceable. 

"These dangerous, anti-public health boilerplate provisions that seek to tie the hands of local health departments, municipalities and universities will not be enforced as part of the final budget because they violated various aspects of the Michigan Constitution," a statement from the governor's office said Tuesday night.

The Democratic governor is expected to sign two bills completing the state's next budget into law on Wednesday, a day before the deadline. But she will strike down language baked into the funding plan that sought to block local health departments from requiring masks to be worn by students in K-12 schools.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks during the press conference at the Farwell Recreation Center in Detroit on Monday, Aug. 16, 2021. Whitmer held the press conference to announce a proposal to strengthen public safety using resources from President Biden’s American Rescue Plan.

The governor's office also believes that language included to require colleges and universities to allow certain exemptions for campus COVID-19 vaccination mandates can't be enforced because the universities are autonomous bodies.

Under the GOP-backed budget language, universities would have to allow exemptions for any student with "religious convictions or other consistently held objection to immunization."

Michigan's COVID-19 infection rates have generally been trending upward for longer than two months. On Monday, the state reported 1,529 adults hospitalized with the virus, the largest daily tally since May.

"With the delta variant circulating, it is important for Michiganders to have every available tool in their toolbox to protect themselves and others from this deadly virus," the governor's office said Tuesday night. "Gov. Whitmer will always protect public health measures that save lives and oppose any attempts to undermine or restrict basic lifesaving actions throughout this pandemic."

Another provision backed by Republican lawmakers addressing vaccine requirements for local and state government employees will remain in the budget, but Whitmer's office believes it will have little impact.

The language bars government agencies from requiring as a condition of employment that an employee must provide proof that he or she has received a COVID-19 vaccine. However, most employee-focused vaccine requirements allow workers to either get vaccinated or go through regular testing, which appears to still be allowed under the budget language.

The provision also acknowledges that a federal vaccine mandate for larger employers, which is being pursued by President Joe Biden's administration, would overrule the state budget policy.

Biden's administration is pursuing rules to force employers with more than 100 workers to require them to be vaccinated or be tested for the virus weekly. But it's unclear what the specifics of that plan will be. 

Republican lawmakers have argued that Michigan residents should decide for themselves whether to get vaccinated.

"I don't think it's the place of government to mandate something that's such a personal decision," House Appropriations Chairman Thomas Albert, R-Lowell, said last week.

Next year's proposed $70 billion state budget, which the governor negotiated with the leaders of the GOP-controlled Legislature, includes large spending increases across the board thanks to a combination of federal COVID-19 relief funds and better than expected state tax revenue.

"This year’s budget makes historic investments to fix nearly 100 bridges, expand no- or low-cost child care to 105,000 children, fully funds a tuition-free pathway to higher education, replaces lead service lines and cleans up PFAS, and makes a record $500 million deposit in the rainy day fund as proof of the state’s strong financial standing," the governor's office said Tuesday.

Staff Writer Beth LeBlanc contributed.