In one of her last acts of her first year in office, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed a supplemental spending deal negotiated — at long last — with GOP legislative leaders.
Whitmer sought to emphasize the positives in the Fiscal Year (FY) 2020 budget process at her year-end press conference with Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist this week.
“I balanced the budget, set the priorities right, took the roads crisis out of the General Fund so that we could actually put dollars back into education — back toward bringing down the costs of higher education, helping people navigate the skills they need to get good-paying jobs — and cleaned up the water,” she said on Wednesday.
But in this first year of divided government, with a Democratic governor and GOP-majority Legislature, the budget process was fraught, with leaders failing to reach a deal on big-ticket items like infrastructure and school spending before the Oct. 1 deadline. In September, it looked like the government could shut down, although Whitmer ultimately signed the budget.
Next year, tensions could be even higher over the budget, Whitmer acknowledged. She said she is “concerned” about a government shutdown, as 2020 will be a critical election year. Michigan seems destined to play an outsized role in the presidential race, as now-President Donald Trump captured it in 2016 and is trying to hold on, despite Democratic victories here in 2018. And both the state House and U.S. House are on the ballot next year.
“As election rhetoric heats up … it’s going to be very important that leaders with platforms to stay focused on the things that we can get done in this environment,” Whitmer said.
Not surprisingly, reporters primarily focused on roads and the budget process, which dragged on from when Whitmer laid out her plan in March until mid-December, when lawmakers passed a supplemental spending plan.
Whitmer’s 45-cent gas tax to raise $2.5 billion for roads and bridges was soundly rejected by state House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) and state Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake). Whitmer said the lack of progress on infrastructure constituted a “complete failure” on the Legislature’s part.
The GOP Legislature also balked at her other spending asks, like a $500 million bump for K-12 schools, and didn’t even give the state’s 15 public universities a cost-of-living increase.
The Advance asked Whitmer how much more Michigan should be spending on pre-K, K-12 and higher education. She responded “a lot” and touted her FY 2020 plan.
“It would have been singularly the biggest investment in the education of Michigan kids in a generation of children here in Michigan,” Whitmer said. “It would have given us the ability to wrap children in higher poverty districts with additional supports that they need to really level the playing field, have real equity built in. We have historically underfunded and permitted all of these withdrawals on the school aid fund to balance other parts of the budget.”
The governor added that she’s crafting her budget proposal for the next fiscal year, but declined to put a number on how much of an increase she’ll ask for education.
“I would’ve liked to have taken that huge step this year,” she said.
Budget talks between Whitmer, Chatfield and Shirkey broke down at several points this year, and the Legislature took most of the summer off. Finally, in September, the Republicans said they’d go it alone and passed budgets without Whitmer’s input.
Whitmer took a government shutdown off the table by signing budget bills on Sept. 30 — the last day before FY 2020 began. But she also vetoed almost $1 million in spending and shifted $625 million within departments to better align with her priorities, which incensed Republicans.
After fits and starts — including Shirkey calling Whitmer and Democrats “batshit crazy” — the three leaders agreed to an almost $600 million budget supplemental this month, as well as some limits to her administrative powers and a (possibly unenforceable) July 1 budget deadline in the future.
Whitmer acknowledged Wednesday that “we’ve had our tussle with the budget, but in year one, that’s kind of to be expected.” She also said the quadrant meetings with she and the four legislative leaders — Shirkey, Chatfield, state House Minority Leader Christine Greig (D-Farmington Hills) and state Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D-Flint) — have been helpful.
The Advance asked Whitmer if she’s concerned the odds of a government shutdown will go up in 2020 since it’s an election year and tensions will be high.
“I am concerned; I’m concerned about a lot of things. This is a historic day in our country — right? — there are articles of impeachment that I think are going to be voted on the same point the subject of them is going to be right here in our state. The whole world’s going to be looking at Michigan and I have been fighting a lot of rhetoric around this town that would drag us into being as toxic as what we know Washington to be.
“I’m determined not to return fire. I’m determined to ensure that we continue to seek common ground wherever we can. It’s not easy some days, but the fact of the matter is the people of our state are less interested about partisan ideology and more interested in actual solutions that are going to improve their lives.”
As the Advance first reported Wednesday afternoon, Whitmer said she supports Trump’s impeachment. She complimented her congresswoman, U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Holly) for her “due diligence” before publicly coming out for impeachment. The U.S. House did vote later that night to impeach the president.
“If I were in her position and was having to make that choice, I, too, would make the vote that she is going to be making, so yes,” Whitmer said.