Just hours after cutting almost $1 billion from the GOP-led $59 billion Fiscal Year 2020 budget, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer took the rare step of using administrative power to transfer funds within state departments.
In a small, packed conference room on Tuesday morning, Whitmer, Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist and key allies like Attorney General Dana Nessel and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson unilaterally sidestepped the Republican-controlled Legislature. The State Administrative Board took the rare step of transferring about $625 million within 13 state separate state departments, a move sure to further anger Republicans.
Additionally, Whitmer on Monday night issued 147 line-item vetoes and found 72 instances of “unenforceable” boilerplate language.
Among those items was a provision that would have allowed the chairs of the House and Senate General Government Appropriations subcommittees to reduce department appropriations by 5% “if they are not satisfied with the speed with which the department responds to a request for information …”
She also blocked a provision that would have required Nessel to testify in front of the general government subcommittees upon entering into a lawsuit against the federal government.
“Nevertheless, the attorney general has informed me that she would be pleased to appear” before the committees when doing so, Whitmer wrote in her signing statement.
Following the Administrative Board meeting, she told reporters, “I do not relish using these powers, but they were absolutely necessary, because the budgets [Republicans] sent were fatally flawed.”
Whitmer’s office released each of her line-item vetoes on Tuesday morning, which included 40 uses of the red pen in the School Aid Fund for K-12 education and 105 in the General Fund, with almost half in the state Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) budget alone.
Notable line-item vetoes include $38 million for Michigan Tuition Grants, which have long been a GOP priority and funded tuition at many of the state’s smaller, private colleges; $37.5 million for the Pure Michigan advertising campaign; and several cuts to programs that send public dollars to private and charter schools.
She also cut $35 million in spending for charter schools and $7 million for “small, isolated” school districts. She chopped $700,000 for an anti-abortion group called Real Alternatives, which has been the subject of controversy in Michigan.
Still, Whitmer said she views the vetoes from the budget bills as just another stage in the ongoing negotiations between she and Republican leaders, which will likely serve as the foundation for future supplemental spending.
“Everyone in the Legislature should know that a line-item veto is not the death knell for any individual item if people get back to the table and negotiate,” Whitmer said. “I don’t think that anyone should read that into it. But they need to get serious. They need to genuinely get to the table to negotiate. And we’re going to talk about the critical functions of state government.”
For his part, state Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) said that he’s not directly addressing the rash of vetoes and transfers at this time. He added they won’t help Whitmer secure the type of funding, like a 45-cent gas tax to fund long-term infrastructure needs, that she’s long called for.
“There is no amount of red pen usage that will result in enough green buttons pushed in the Senate to get my Governor what she wants,” Shirkey said in a statement. “The Senate will continue to partner with our colleagues across the aisle and in the House to pass bipartisan policies that benefit all Michiganders. We are in no rush to participate in Governor Whitmer’s ‘tug of war’.”
Shirkey spokeswoman Amber McCann said he plans to attend a quadrant meeting Whitmer has called for Thursday. It’s unclear whether House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) will join the meeting, according to spokesman Gideon D’Assandro, who said he’s not yet looked at the invitation.
“They’ve been inviting her to budget talks for weeks and she hasn’t responded,” D’Assandro said. “He’s always willing to work with her and talk with her.”
Groups speak out
Fellow Democrats and key allied groups such as educators and environmentalists praised Whitmer’s moves as necessary on Tuesday.
That included state House Minority Leader Christine Greig (D-Farmington Hills), who was often at odds with Whitmer over the last several weeks as negotiations broke down.
“As the House Democrats’ votes indicated, the majority of Republican budgets failed to provide real solutions for Michigan’s most urgent challenges or reflect the priorities of Michiganders,” Greig said in a statement.
“Gov. Whitmer is using every tool at her disposal to protect the people of this state and should be commended for it,” Greig continued. “House Democrats have already identified several new revenue opportunities to address the challenges facing this state, and we welcome our Republican colleagues back to the negotiating table to join us in that conversation.”
State Sen. Curtis Hertel, Jr. (D-East Lansing) serves as minority vice chair on the state Senate Appropriations Committee. He took a solemn look at Whitmer’s actions.
“I don’t think it’s a happy day for Michigan and I don’t think the governor is happy,” Hertel said. “But that was the only option left after the Legislature made the unprecedented move to leave an un-negotiated budget on her desk.”
He said while Republicans are complaining that Whitmer “walked away” from negotiations, they were the ones who essentially “put a gun to her head.” Hertel said Whitmer proved she “isn’t just going to roll over.”
Hertel, the son of late former state House Speaker Curtis Hertel Sr., noted he’s “been in town awhile.” The only somewhat comparably tense budget negotiation the younger Hertel said he’s seen was in 1991 under former Gov. John Engler, who then used the Administrative Board for his priorities, as Whitmer did Tuesday. Hertel noted that brought the parties back to the table and is “optimistic” that will happen this time, too.
When asked if Democrats would be united going forward after a split over the School Aid budget negotiated by Greig and Chatfield independent of the governor, Hertel said “yes” and he believes Dems have learned something.
“When you’re playing chess, there’s only one king on this board — and that’s the governor,” he said.
Environmental group Clean Water Action applauded the “hard choices” Whitmer made over the last several days after receiving the GOP budgets and rescinding a notice of a potential government shutdown to 48,000 employees.
Mary Brady-Enerson, the group’s Michigan director, said this budget process has only driven home the fact that Michigan will fail to meet key goals without some form of tax increases, as Whitmer has called for in her effort to address crumbling infrastructure.
“The bottom-line is that we need new revenue in Michigan. Disinvestment over the last twenty years must be reversed and we must ensure that wealthy individuals and corporations pay their fair share in taxes,” Brady-Enerson said in a statement.
Whitmer said she hopes her actions spur such further negotiations and she quickly brushed away GOP “talking points” as “balderdash” that she walked away from negotiations.
“The fact of the matter is, when we sat down to have a conversation around the budget, they came with ultimatums. That’s not a negotiation,” Whitmer said, noting that she had already promised to use veto and Administrative Board powers if Republicans sent her budgets she wasn’t involved in crafting.
“And that’s why today’s action should not be a surprise to anyone in this town,” Whitmer said.
Advance Editor-in-Chief Susan J. Demas contributed reporting.