6 budget conference reports advance, despite Whitmer’s objections

Michigan Capitol | Susan J. Demas

The first GOP-led conference committees advanced six department-level budgets on Thursday that can now move to the full House and Senate. 

The conference committee hearings on Thursday are a key step in bridging differences between the House and Senate Fiscal Year 2020 budget bills before the Sept. 30 deadline. Each conference committee has six members, three from each chamber. Because Republicans control both the House and Senate, the breakdown on the committees is four Republicans and two Democrats.

Conference reports were signed for the Michigan State Police (MSP); Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE), community colleges, higher education and School Aid Fund. 

Another Michigan budget standoff dawns

Several more conference committees for various budget areas are scheduled for next week. These committees met before GOP legislative leaders and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer agreed on budget targets — a typical step in the process.

Whitmer at the Lansing Brewing Co.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer talks to reporters at the Lansing Brewing Co. | Nick Manes

On Monday, Whitmer, state House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) agreed to move forward with the budget independent of road funding. By Wednesday, talks had broken down again over one-time road funding in the Fiscal Year 2020 budget and Republicans went ahead and held their scheduled conference committees on Thursday.

“I think it’s confirmation that they’re going to continue moving forward,” Whitmer told reporters at the Capitol on Thursday of the conference committees. “They gotta do what they gotta do and I’m going to do what I gotta do.”

Speaking with reporters on Thursday, Shirkey said it’s unclear to him at this point whether Whitmer will approve or veto the budget the Legislature plans to send her. 

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey speaks at the auto insurance reform bill signing, May 30, 2019 | Andrew Roth

She’s got all of her options available to her, Shirkey said. “I can’t predict, quite frankly based on the last few days of interactions; I can’t predict anything.”

Now that the conference reports have been passed, they are unable to be amended before a full vote on the House or Senate floor. 

Democrats either voted no or passed on each of the budgets, with Republicans voting for each one. 

Particular areas of frustration for Democrats were the School Aid Fund and higher education conference reports. 

The latter, which provides state funding for Michigan’s 15 public universities, received a .9% funding increase in the budget that passed today, much to the chagrin of state Sen. Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor). That’s compared to a 3% bump proposed by Whitmer.

Education advocates grapple with ‘disturbing’ higher ed budget

“Year after year, we’ve given [universities) tiny increases that lag behind inflation,” Irwin said. “I don’t think there’s a single institution that is not falling further behind with this budget. And obviously, that makes college less affordable. It means that college is getting pushed further and further out of reach for young, capable, smart, hard-working kids who don’t own a wealthy family. And I don’t think that’s right.”

Sen. Jim Stamas at the Fiscal Year 2020 budget presentation | Casey Hull

Speaking with reporters after the hearings, Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Jim Stamas (R-Midland) defended their higher ed budget, however. 

“Universities are doing a fantastic job, and we hope to continue to find additional support,” Stamas said. “We’d love to do more, but maintaining a balanced budget that’s structurally sound across the board for all remains the priority.”

Similarly, Democratic lawmakers and education advocacy groups are blasting the GOP School Aid Fund budget for K-12 schools that advanced on Thursday. State Sen. Rosemary Bayer (D-Beverly Hills) called the 2.4% proposed bump in funding “inadequate.” 

Whitmer’s proposed budget included a “weighted” funding model that doles out money differently for different types of students, something education groups have long supported.

Budget conference committees | Nick Manes

Rep. Aaron Miller (R-Sturgis), the conference committee chair and a former teacher, said he supported that model and that the budget passed on Thursday was just that. 

State Rep. Kristy Pagan (D-Canton Twp.) and Bayer both strongly disagreed. 

“It is an inequitable funding model; it is not weighted based on the specific children and their needs,” Bayer said of the conference report. “As much as I appreciate all the hard work that went into this through the summer, I’m disappointed that we didn’t use the time that we had to improve this in a way [that gives] our schools and our children the funding that they really need for quality education.”

One area in which lawmakers did meet Whitmer’s recommendation was allocating $120 million for drinking water protection and innovation, which was included in the EGLE budget. That allocation includes $30 million for implementation of the Lead and Copper Rule, $40 million for PFAS and other contaminants and $35 million for the Drinking Water Revolving Fund loan forgiveness.

Whitmer denies caving to GOP on road fix, says she’s being the ‘adult in the room’

“Lawmakers today made significant progress on securing the much-needed $120 million in their budgets to ensure Michigan families have safe, clean drinking water,” Lisa Wozniak, executive director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters, said in a statement. “Michiganders across the state are grappling water contamination like toxic PFAS and lead in their water.”

Advance reporter Allison Donahue contributed to this report.

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