Finley: Spare vulnerable from budget battle

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks with Speaker of the House Lee Chatfield before her State of the State speech in this file photo from Tuesday, February 12, 2019.

I don't believe either Gov. Gretchen Whitmer or the Republican leaders of the Legislature want their standoff over the budget to harm the state’s most vulnerable citizens, particularly going into the holidays.

So why didn't they protect them before lawmakers adjourned for a three-week fall break? The answer seems to be that they're locked in a room without clear exits, and can't figure out how to keep compromise from looking like capitulation.

Getting a comprehensive budget deal done now looks as if it will take awhile. But the sparring parties can fix the worst of the harm done by the governor's spending vetoes while they wrestle with the larger issues. 

Whitmer made a calculation that if she used $1 billion in spending vetoes to inflict pain on the public, she could force Republicans back to the table, where she expected them to surrender. 

She was wrong. House Speaker Lee Chatfield and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey are in no hurry to give the governor what she wants — massive new taxes to fund road work.

Roughly $400 million of the vetoed money would have gone to the roads. Whitmer nixed that in a policy dispute, and that's defensible. She wants a sustainable revenue source.

But the other $500 million she killed was purely political, intended to harm citizens who would then lobby lawmakers to cave.

Now the pain is about to become acute. Programs such as the Autism Alliance, which depended on its $1 million in state funding to provide crisis services to autistic individuals and their families, will run out of money in a few weeks.

Same goes for groups offering help to those coping with dementia, social service providers such as the Chaldean Community Council and Jewish Family Services, and a host of others who use small appropriations from the state to do big work. 

Restoring funding to the service organizations would take under $40 million, a drop in the billion-dollar bucket of vetoed funds. 

Lawmakers should return to Lansing this week and send the governor a bipartisan supplemental spending proposal to restore that money. Whitmer would have to choose between her maximum suffering strategy and her promise to stand up for Michigan families.  

Freeing the funds would still leave most of the $1 billion in vetoed spending to battle over, including money for the Pure Michigan tourism campaign, funds to make whole charter school per pupil funding and the appropriation for sheriff road patrols.

These are important programs as well. But nobody’s well-being is at risk if ads touting the wonders of Michigan’s tourist attractions drop off the air this winter.

The same can’t be said of a family that finds itself with no place to turn if the phone goes unanswered when they call seeking emergency help for an autistic child

Restoring funds for programs serving Michigan residents living on the edge will not change the power dynamics of the budget bargaining.

But it would keep keep those who are already facing enormous struggles from paying the price of politicians incapable of doing their jobs.

Catch Nolan Finley on One Detroit at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays on Detroit Public Television.