Final GOP budgets pass Legislature, Whitmer calls bills ‘a mess’

Michigan Capitol, March 22, 2019 | Susan J. Demas

The GOP-led Legislature on Tuesday advanced 15 budget bills that will now head to the desk of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in the coming days. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer talks about her infrastructure plan in Grand Rapids, June 24, 2019 | Nick Manes

The budgets were passed without significant input from Whitmer, a Democrat, as talks between the governor and Republican leaders in the Legislature have broken down in recent weeks. Both state House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) said Tuesday they’ve not heard from the governor in days. 

The state’s 2020 Fiscal Year starts at midnight Tuesday, Oct. 1. The budget  must be signed by then in order to avert a partial government shutdown. 

Whitmer has not yet sent a clear signal about whether she intends to outright veto or issue line-item vetos to any part of the budget. But in a statement, she made clear she’s displeased with what she’s seen of the GOP budgets. 

Last Michigan budget conference reports signed, full Legislature to vote next week

“These budgets are a mess,” Whitmer said. “Republicans are playing more shell games with the state budget so they can buy a phony talking point that they’re spending ‘record money’ on roads. And now, with less than a week until the budget is due, they’re planning to leave town for break again without having transmitted a single budget to my office.”

Spokespeople for both GOP caucuses say they don’t expect any further legislative action this week, giving clerks time to get budget bills transmitted to Whitmer’s desk. The governor has not yet received any budget bills. 

Road work in downtown Lansing | Susan J. Demas

Republicans have long opposed Whitmer’s proposed 45-cent gas tax proposal to raise $2.5 billion annually for infrastructure. Instead, they included a one-time infusion of $400 million for roads and bridges from the state’s discretionary General Fund, much to the anger of Whitmer and legislative Democrats who feel the state needs a stronger designated revenue stream. 

The Legislature last week advanced a School Aid Fund budget that includes a $30 million boost for special education after Chatfield and House Minority Leader Christine Greig (D-Farmington Hills) cut a deal without the governor. Senate Democrats were united in their opposition to the budget, asserting that it falls far short of the funding needed for education. Most House Dems voted for that budget, but it exposed deep rifts in the House caucus.

K-12 budget goes to Whitmer amidst Democratic divide

Both Chatfield and Shirkey have said they remain open to working with the governor once the budget is completed, but the priority is keeping state government open.  

“What we are obligated to do through the appropriations process is [to] fund our priorities. That’s what we did today,” Chatfield said. “I made it very clear, we need to have ongoing conversations for long-term structural fixes to ensure our roads are properly funded. But through the appropriations process, you need to find every available dollar to fund your priorities.”

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, Sept. 24, 2019 | Nick Manes

Shirkey told reporters that “we’ll find out soon what [Whitmer] means by ‘a mess,’” and said he believes the bills approved by the Legislature on Tuesday are “very good budgets.” 

Agree and disagree

On most big-ticket issues like roads and higher education, Democrats in both chambers were united against the bills approved by the majority Republicans. 

State Rep. Leslie Love (D-Detroit) slammed the GOP roads plan for not actually solving the problem. 

Leslie Love

“We’ve got a half-hearted roads plan we’re going to vote on,” Love said in a floor speech and referencing the villain in the “Wizard of Oz.” “It’s like putting [Oil of] Olay on the Wicked Witch’s face.” 

Higher education and community college budgets that advanced Tuesday are also the subject of opposition for Democratic lawmakers and education advocates. The GOP budget for the state’s 15 public universities includes a less than 1% boost in funding, compared to Whitmer’s 3% recommendation. 

“A budget is a symbol of priorities and we were shown today by the Republican legislature that they do not see education as a priority,” David Hecker, president of the teachers’ union American Federation of Teachers-Michigan, said in a statement. “We thank the lawmakers who took a principled stand and opposed this sham budget.”

Education advocates grapple with ‘disturbing’ higher ed budget

Despite some of the anger over road and education funding, the day’s only fireworks came ahead of the vote for the state’s Department of Insurance and Financial Services (DIFS), which, in part, regulates auto insurance. 

State Rep. Isaac Robinson (D-Detroit) has been a fierce critic of the bipartisan auto insurance reform bill Whitmer signed earlier this year, complaining that DIFS lacks the teeth to regulate insurance providers. 

Rep. Isaac Robinson
Isaac Robinson

In a floor speech ahead of the vote, Robinson had his microphone cut off and was gaveled down by Speaker Pro Tem Jason Wentworth (R-Clare), who accused him of speaking off-topic and told him he “was out of order.” 

Robinson shouted back that Wentworth was “out of order,” and called the DIFS budget proposal “racist,” apparently because insurance companies can still set rates based on non-driving factors.  

One key area where there was near-universal agreement, however, was on the Department of Energy, Great Lakes and Environment (EGLE) budget, which includes $120 million for drinking water funding, on of Whitmer’s key priorities. 

That budget cleared both chambers with near-unanimous support, with only state Rep. John Reilly (R-Oakland Twp.) voting against it. 

“Today, after years of inaction, this Legislature is finally turning a corner in the fight to safeguard the public health,” said state Rep. Mari Manoogian (D-Birmingham). “There is much more we can do to clean up our air and our water, yet I am hopeful that this is only the beginning of our state’s commitment to protecting and valuing our environment, and in doing so, protecting the people who call Michigan home.”

Where things go from here

Some Democratic leaders believe Whitmer now has an opportunity to get GOP leaders back to the table by strategically using her line-item veto power. 

Sen. Curtis Hertel, Sept. 19, 2019 | Nick Manes

“I think you have to look at all the budgets as a whole and do to them what would bring [Republican leaders] back to the table,” said state Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr. (D-East Lansing), who serves as minority vice chair on the Senate Appropriations Committee. 

“This can’t be looked at as just a bunch of individual discussions,” Hertel told reporters. “A lot of one-time money, fund shifts and gimmicks were used in order to find $400 million to claim you had that for roads.”

Just what tools Whitmer might use — or whether she’ll approve the vast majority of GOP budgets — remains unclear. For his part, Chatfield says he believes the Republican Legislature and the governor will continue to have a good working relationship going forward. 

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, Sept. 24, 2019 | Nick Manes

“This is how negotiations take place,” the speaker said. “I’m very open to meeting with the governor and negotiating in good faith moving forward. I’m the type of person that will not burn any bridges I may have to cross over one day. And I’m very hopeful that the governor has the exact same attitude as we approach the coming weeks and months.”

Advance reporters Laina G. Stebbins and Allison Donahue contributed to this story.

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