Michigan House budget chair: 'No emergency' need for more COVID funds

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Rep. Thomas Albert, a key Republican lawmaker, defended Tuesday the Michigan Legislature's handling of billions of federal COVID-19 relief dollars, saying lawmakers were being "careful" and "methodical" with the funds.

As the GOP-controlled House and Senate began their final three weeks of session days before the end of the year, amid ongoing negotiations over how and when to spend $10 billion in federal aid, Albert, R-Lowell, told reporters that he didn't believe there were things that were emergencies that "absolutely" "need to be done right now."

"We've appropriated a historic amount of funds already," the House Appropriations Committee chairman said. "And there's no emergency right now when it comes to the funds."

"We've been methodical," he added at another point. "We've been making sure that we just don't write a blank check and give it to the governor."

Michigan State Rep. Thomas Albert, R-Lowell

The lead Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, Sen. Curtis Hertel of East Lansing, had different view. The state, which is facing a record-setting surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations, hasn't yet hit a point where it's needing more money to respond to the pandemic, but it's approaching that moment, he said.

"It should be done, and it should be done before the end of the year," Hertel said of appropriating federal money to combat the virus.

Eight months after President Joe Biden signed the American Rescue Plan into law, Michigan sits on about $10 billion in federal relief funds that remain unappropriated by the state Legislature.

Of those dollars, lawmakers have discretion over how to spend about $5.7 billion, according to the State Budget Office.

On Nov. 19, Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's budget office asked Republican lawmakers to approve $2.5 billion in supplemental spending, relying heavily on funds from the American Rescue Plan.

Her request included $300 million for screening and testing at Michigan schools, $367 million for expanding testing, contact tracing and disease surveillance and $97 million to boost vaccinations. 

"Most of the supplemental items are federal COVID funding from the American Rescue Plan Act previously requested for fiscal year 2021 and are now being resubmitted for fiscal year 2022," wrote Chris Harkins, Whitmer's budget director, in a Nov. 19 letter to legislative leaders.

Michigan's coronavirus infection rates have been trending upward since the summer. On Monday, the state reported a record number of adults hospitalized with confirmed cases of the virus: 4,181. Last week, 18.7% of the state's COVID-19 tests were positive, the highest percentage since the early weeks of the pandemic, according to data from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

A high percent of positivity likely means the state needs to do more testing to track positive cases that are going undiagnosed.

But Albert rejected the idea Tuesday that GOP lawmakers were holding back needed dollars for COVID-19 testing.

The Legislature has appropriated more than $500 million for testing and there's still $210 million that's been allocated but unspent by the state, he said.

"I could put out a press release tomorrow, and people will feel good about it," Albert said. "Unless we actually find the areas where can make a difference and focus on that, it's not going to do anybody any good."

The testing money could be used to address workforce shortages among hospitals and other health care providers, the lawmaker said.

"If we wouldn't have been careful, we wouldn't have these opportunities," Albert said. "We need to make sure that we keep some money in reserve so we can stay flexible going forward."

The Michigan House Appropriations Committee has scheduled a meeting for Wednesday to hear from health care providers about potential financial needs. Funding early treatments for the people with the virus is one possibility, Albert said.

The House has also proposed a $250 million supplemental spending bill that would aid law enforcement with equipment upgrades and by subsidizing the recruitment and retention of employees.

The Senate Appropriations Committee is expected to vote on a revised $3.5 billion spending bill for water infrastructure on Wednesday with $1 billion for lead line replacements and $400 million to combat flooding in southeast Michigan.

Albert said he also hopes to provide additional money to combat learning loss caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, but he didn't reveal details of that plan on Tuesday.

"So many of these kids are grade levels behind and their future opportunities are very much at risk," Albert said.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, declined to take a reporter's questions on Tuesday morning. But Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, said there's a chance more money gets allocated by the Legislature by the end of the year.

Lawmakers are discussing more funding for broadband, economic development, public health and public safety, Ananich said.

"I think we can do all of those things," he said. "And I think we can do it in a meaningful way that allows us all to have some wins."


Staff Writer Beth LeBlanc contributed.