Just hours after walking back a long-held pledge to veto any budget without a big boost for infrastructure funding, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer sought to downplay any notion that she gave into GOP demands.
Rather, she says that she’s being the “adult in the room” and stressed that the Monday morning joint announcement with Republican legislative leaders is simply a means of ensuring that state government remains open and functioning once the state’s 2020 Fiscal Year begins on Oct. 1.
Republicans in the state Legislature have been firmly against Whitmer’s proposed 45-cent gas tax increase. But when asked by the Advance on Monday if she caved into pressure to drop the proposal, she firmly denied that and stressed that road funding talks will resume.
“I’d say that there are a lot of people who probably think that this is an easy job who don’t understand the ramifications of what a shutdown would mean,” Whitmer said after a speech in Grand Rapids.
“[People] who think that the Republicans have shown any seriousness in solving the road problem … unfortunately, they would be misinformed if that was their conclusion. The fact of the matter is, a shutdown would be catastrophic for a lot of people that are counting on us to get this done, and I’m not willing to play games with people’s lives.”
Speaking with reporters following her remarks to the Grand Rapids Economics Club, Whitmer demurred when asked whether she got any firm commitments from state House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) to take up road funding — her signature campaign issue — once a budget is done.
Rather, she said she doesn’t view a partial government shutdown “as a game” and stressed the detrimental effect that would have on the state’s roughly 47,000 state employees.
“I don’t view a shutdown as a game, I don’t view it as something that is just a leverage point,” Whitmer said, adding that she believes there are certain GOP legislators — she declined to say who — that are rooting for a shutdown for political reasons.
“I view it as something that’s very serious, that would have ramifications for people of our state,” she continued. “And that’s why, you know, as the adult in the room, I said, ‘It’s time to focus on getting a good budget done and continue that.’ So in one way or another, we’re going to fix the roads in Michigan.”
Chatfield spokesman Gideon D’Assandro rejected Whitmer’s assertion of hoping for a shutdown.
“I think we can all see right through that comment. The House and the Senate both passed budgets months ago, but the Republican leaders agreed to wait to help Governor Whitmer pursue her top personal priority,” D’Assandro said in a statement. “After months of no movement and no willingness to compromise, they decided last week to focus on the budget and get that done before the deadline.”
Likewise, Shirkey spokeswoman Amber McCann said, “Governor Whitmer is the only person talking about a ‘shutdown.’ The Senate will deliver a budget on time while the Governor keeps ‘adulting.’”
The gas tax hike made for the centerpiece of Whitmer’s $60.2 billion budget proposal, as she said it would help end the “shell game” in which a significant amount of road repair money comes out of the state’s approximately $10 billion General Fund, the state’s main discretionary spending account. Using that money for roads, Whitmer argues, shortchanges other key budget priorities, namely schools.
Republicans flatly rejected the gas-tax hike proposal, and similarly, Whitmer rejected confidential counter-proposals from the GOP leaders, leading to the impasse.
Earlier on Monday, however, Crain’s Detroit reported it had obtained an outline of those proposals, which included exploring a ballot proposal to raise the state’s sales tax by 1 cent in exchange for an unspecified cut in vehicle registration fees.
Shirkey confirmed the authenticity of the document and told Crain’s the sales tax proposal remains on the table.
Democratic leaders’ responses to Whitmer’s deal with GOP leaders to pursue a budget deal separate from roads has varied.
House Minority Leader Christine Greig (D-Farmington Hills) called for the immediate formation of a bipartisan task force “to find real, long-term road funding solutions immediately.”
Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D-Flint) called for an immediate return to the negotiating table, while understanding the need to get the budget done, “because the roads problem isn’t going away; it’s only going to get worse.”
Whitmer appears to agree, but says the focus in the short term needs to be the budget.
“It’s not fun to be the adult in the room sometimes,” Whitmer said. But the fact of the matter is, we’ve got important work to do in keeping the state of Michigan open and running. And so I’m going to focus on getting that done.”