Whitmer vetoes almost $1B in GOP ‘pork barrel’ spending in budget

Michigan Capitol, Sept. 20, 2019 | Susan J. Demas

Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Monday signed 16 GOP-led budget bills, averting a partial government shutdown, but also handed down $947 million worth of line-item vetoes.

Whitmer issued 147 line-item vetoes in Fiscal Year 2020 budgets, the governor’s office said Monday night. That includes $375 million in one-time, General Fund infrastructure spending and $128 million in what she called “pork barrel spending” within the $15.2 billion School Aid budget that funds K-12 schools.

The new fiscal year begins at midnight. The administration informed the state’s 48,000 employees on Friday there would not be a shutdown.

While Whitmer ran on “fixing the damn roads,” she’s advocated for a 45-cent gas tax hike as her preferred method for a long-term solution. However, that’s been strongly rejected by the Legislature, with Republicans instead shifting $400 million into roads in their transportation budget. One-time funding, Whitmer argues, won’t solve the $2.5 billion annual problem.

The budgets signed by Whitmer on Monday were crafted largely without input from the governor, as talks between she and legislative Republicans had broken down in recent weeks.

State employees told there will be no government shutdown

Beyond making strong use of the line-item veto, it also appears Whitmer plans to tap into the rarely-used State Administrative Board, which meets Tuesday morning, as a means of shifting money within state departments to more closely align with her spending priorities. 

Whitmer hinted at further actions in a statement on Monday night in which she again labeled the GOP budgets “a complete mess” — as she did after the Legislature passed budgets last week — and referred to the broader institution as “broken.” 

“While line item vetoes can only clean up so much of this mess, additional steps will be needed to protect Michiganders, protect access to health care, and help close the skills gap,” Whitmer said, “and it will take Republicans and Democrats working together to get it done.”

The statement from Whitmer’s office pointed to several areas of the GOP budgets that misaligned with her spending priorities, such as a $48 million cut from the Department of Corrections budget and $53 million cut from the state Department of Technology, Management and Budget (DTMB) that, among other things, Whitmer said would “weaken cybersecurity.” 

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

The governor’s office declined to release a full list of the line-item vetoes on Monday night. 

The State Administrative Board is scheduled to meet in Lansing on Tuesday morning. The body consists of appointees of the governor and people appointed by close allies, such as Attorney General Dana Nessel and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, as well as other department heads. 

John Engler | Wikimedia Commons

The board has the power to shift funds within state departments, but can’t move money between departments. 

The use of the board, seen as an end-run around this GOP-led Legislature, was last used in 1991 by Republican former Gov. John Engler. His use of the board drew anger from lawmakers, but was ultimately upheld by the state Supreme Court. 

Whitmer’s use of the administrative board is unlikely to improve the already-tense relationship between the governor and legislative Republicans. 

Whitmer’s use of the line-item veto came as no surprise to state Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake). 

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

“I think she’ll have a very busy red pen, [issuing line-item vetoes on] things that aren’t her priorities,” Shirkey said during a Monday morning interview on WJR-AM, noting that he expects the line-item vetoes to “go into what I call a supplemental bucket and then we’ll get back to negotiations over those things and where that money should be spent.” 

A spokeswoman for Shirkey did not immediately respond to a request for further comment on Monday night.

Over the past eight years when Lansing was firmly under Republican control, budgets were done by May or early-June, ahead of a typical legislative summer break. 

This year was different with minimal budget work accomplished beyond each chamber passing its own budget plan ahead of the break, leading to a tense summer and early-fall as Whitmer continually blasted lawmakers for leaving town without the work done. 

Budget talks breaking down between Whitmer, GOP leaders

Budget talks between Whitmer and legislative Republicans broke down amid differences tied to the use of one-time General Fund money for road and bridge repairs, something Whitmer opposed, preferring a long-time solution. 

The Legislature last week passed its own budgets with limited input from the governor’s office. 

Speaker Lee Chatfield | Nick Manes

State House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) in a statement blamed Whitmer for the budget impasse, calling it “silly and completely avoidable.” He said he’s ready to return to negotiations.

“Now that her shutdown threat has been shown to be nothing more than empty words, the cameras will stop rolling and the headlines will move on,” Chatfield said. “Hopefully that means she will finally accept our invitation to come back to the negotiating table and get back to work.”

As the Advance previously reported, progressive leaders had no shortage of qualms with the GOP budgets. 

On Monday night following Whitmer’s budget announcement groups like Progress Michigan and education advocates said her use of the veto pen gets the state budget headed back in the right direction. 

“The budget the legislature sent to the Governor simply wasn’t good enough and we appreciate Governor Whitmer’s willingness to make bold changes to it in whatever capacity she’s able to,” said Mark Greathead, superintendent of Woodhaven Brownstown Schools and the president of the Tri-County Alliance for Public Education in Southeast Michigan.

Lack of state budget progress rankles Michigan school leaders

Similarly, Whitmer said the Legislature’s budgets fell far short on key priorities like education and infrastructure and poked at legislative leaders’ frequent talk in recent weeks of “record funding” for those budget areas.

“The legislature is broken. Talking point budgets don’t fix our fundamental problems as a state. The budgets they passed don’t do enough to give our schools the resources they need to educate our kids,” Whitmer said. “They won’t protect our communities, ensure clean, safe drinking water in our schools, and they won’t do a damn thing to fix the roads.”

Nick Manes
Nick Manes covers West Michigan, business and labor, health care and the safety net. He previously spent six years as a reporter at MiBiz covering commercial real estate, economic development and all manner of public policy at the local and state levels. His byline also has appeared in Route Fifty and The Daily Beast. When not reporting around the state or furiously tweeting, he enjoys spending time with his girlfriend, Krista, biking around his hometown of Grand Rapids and torturing himself rooting for the Detroit Lions.

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