Michigan lawmakers OK $841M spending plan for rental assistance, COVID testing

Craig Mauger Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — Michigan lawmakers and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer agreed Tuesday on an $841 million spending bill that will allocate a portion of the federal relief funds available for emergency rental assistance and COVID-19 testing in K-12 schools.

The bill passed 94-9 in the state House and 35-1 in the Senate. 

The votes in the House and Senate were the latest developments in months-long negotiations over how the state should handle billions of stimulus dollars the federal government sent as a response to the ongoing pandemic. The new proposal appropriates only a segment of the accessible funds and a fraction of the dollars requested by Whitmer's administration.

But the governor described the votes as "another big step forward in finding common ground and agreement on how to spend some of those federal resources."

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.

"Our progress is a testament to what’s possible when we put work together, and this bill will build on progress we made earlier this year to enact the largest education investment in state history and pass a balanced, bipartisan budget that made game-changing investments in skills, bridges, child care and so much more," Whitmer said. "I will analyze the legislation with key members of my administration, and I look forward to signing the supplemental soon."

House Appropriations Chairman Thomas Albert, R-Lowell, said the measure was part of a "multi-faceted plan" to distribute federal COVID relief funds and address needs across the state.

“We are coming together and doing what must be done for our state right now, while also building positive momentum for important initiatives moving forward," he said. 

The new proposal included $150 million in federal money for COVID-19 testing and screening activities at schools. Whitmer requested the allocation of $300 million. The bill also targeted $140 million in federal money for emergency rental assistance. Whitmer had requested the allocation of $522 million.

Nine months after President Joe Biden signed the American Rescue Plan into law, Michigan had been sitting on about $10 billion in federal relief funds that remained unappropriated. Of those dollars, lawmakers had discretion over how to spend about $5.7 billion, according to the State Budget Office.

Sen. Curtis Hertel, D-East Lansing, said the new bill would bring "important investments" for the state. Hertel vowed to keep pushing for more federal dollars to be spent.

"I am not going to hold up relief for people, for politics," Hertel said. "Do I wish it was more? Absolutely, and I'm going to keep fighting for more."

Tuesday is the House's last scheduled session day of 2021. It's unclear whether it will be the Senate's final day.

The supplemental featured a variety of other expenditures, including $10 million for a grant to a nonprofit organization to support teacher recruitment and training, and $36 million for "emerging environmental threats" in Benton Harbor and other communities.

The bill also had $22 million for one-time grants: $9 million for the North American International Auto Show, $5 million for converting a floor at the Helen DeVos Children's Hospital into a pediatric psychiatric unit and $1 million for the St. Clair Convention Center.

In addition, the legislation featured $14 million in federal funds for nursing home and long-term care facility strike teams to build and maintain infection control. And it had $19 million in federal funds for mental health services.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Jim Stamas, R-Midland, said the bill's approval was "responsible, financial good-housekeeping that sets our state up well for the next year."

"In the near term, this supplemental funding includes important line-items to aid in the continued COVID response in our communities and schools and assists in providing mental health to the most vulnerable during this time," Stamas said.

Separately, the Michigan House approved on Tuesday another $1 billion spending plan targeting money for early COVID-19 treatment, testing and health care worker recruitment and retention. 

Unlike the $841 million proposal, the House plan wouldn't advance to the governor's desk on Tuesday.

Albert called the $1 billion spending plan, which passed the House 98-4, a “good first step” toward early prevention and treatment options for COVID-19, and toward addressing the state’s health care worker shortage. 

“It’s going to give us time to work through and see if there’s more improvements that we can make,” Albert said. “This is the legislative process. This is the way it’s supposed to go. It’s supposed to take time. There’s supposed to be multiple different avenues for input.”



Staff Writer Kalea Hall contributed.