March 12 | This Week in Government: Local Impact of $1.9T Federal COVID-19 Relief; GOP Legal Action on Funds Tied to Pandemic LimitsMarch 12, 2021
- State, Locals to Receive $10.1B Under $1.9T Federal COVID Relief Bill
- Senate GOP Authorizes Legal Action on Funds Tied to Pandemic Limits
- $841M to Schools in Question as Whitmer Signs, Vetoes COVID Bills
- House Again Passes Funding Vetoed By Whitmer Tuesday
- With Ballot Measure Looming, Dems Try Again on ELCRA Expansion
State and local budgets have, so far, avoided the massive disruptions feared by the COVID-19 pandemic, but worries about lingering economic effects mean $350 billion to aid state and local governments is part of the $1.9 trillion federal coronavirus relief bill with $10.1 billion of that coming to Michigan.
A whopping $5.7 billion will be for the state to address its budget while $4.4 billion will go to local governments. It presents an extraordinary windfall in one-time revenues for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the Republican-led Legislature to handle.
Both of Michigan’s U.S. senators praised the passage of the $1.9 trillion coronavirus aid package that passed the U.S. Senate over the weekend, saying it will help get more people vaccinated and provide needed additional relief as the nation works to continue the fight against the deadly pandemic.
U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing) and U.S. Sen. Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Township) in statements called the package historic and said it will provide aid to families and get more people vaccinated against COVID-19, which has killed more than 15,000 Michigan residents and more than 500,000 people across the country.
The legislation passed 50-49 on Saturday along party lines after numerous proposed amendments from Republicans were rejected. Some amendments by moderate Democrats were adopted, requiring the U.S. House to vote again on the package Tuesday before it is sent later this week to President Joe Biden’s desk.
“Michigan families have been through so much this past year just trying to keep their families safe, educate their children at home and survive the financial challenges of this health pandemic,” Stabenow said in a Saturday statement. “They need and deserve to know that their government has their back. The American Rescue Plan does just that. The plan we just passed will get vaccines into people’s arms, provide direct financial help for people to survive the pandemic, and help return students safely back to school and so much more.”
Peters, in a statement of his own, agreed.
“The American Rescue Plan will make a difference for Michiganders by providing robust relief to get through this unprecedented public health and economic crisis,” Peters said. “We are seeing reasons for hope with the increase in vaccines, but we cannot let up. We must work to get this package signed into law quickly – this virus does not take a day off, and neither can we.”
Contained in the bill is a third round of direct payments to many residents, this time of up to $1,400.
Democrats provided $350 billion in emergency funding for state and local governments impacted by the pandemic.
Another $130 billion for K-12 schools and $40 billion for higher education was included.
An extension of unemployment benefits of $300 per week through September 6 was provided for in the relief package. A provision was included for those making less than $150,000 per year who are receiving unemployment benefits so that they would not have to pay taxes on the first $10,200 in benefits received.
A total of $50 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to push a national vaccination program was also included.
There is more than $25 billion for rental assistance in the package, $25 billion for bars and restaurants that have lost revenue due to the pandemic, and $15 billion for Economic Injury Disaster Loan Advanced grants.
Michigan Municipal League Board President Bill Wild in a statement praised the passage of the package in a statement, saying the aid to local governments is desperately needed to recover from the pandemic.
“We applaud the Senate for committing much-needed $65 billion of direct aid to all local governments to help our communities recover from the devastation caused by COVID-19,” Wild said. “This aid will provide significant and desperately needed funding to Michigan communities of all sizes as they work to assist communities, businesses, and residents in emerging from the coronavirus pandemic.”
Senate GOP Authorizes Legal Action on Funds Tied to Pandemic Limits
The Senate majority leader was granted authorization Thursday via resolution to file a lawsuit against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer if her administration attempts to spend any funding recently that was tied to provisions in vetoed legislation which provided strings to some of the dollars.
By a 20-14 vote along party lines the Senate passed SR 26.
Under the resolution, Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) would be able to file suit if Gov. Whitmer seeks to spend any of the supplemental coronavirus response funding that was tied to HB 4049, which she vetoed. The same would be the case for any funding tied to SB 1, which is also expected to be vetoed.
The resolution, in part, reads that if Gov. Whitmer makes any attempt to spend the funds, “without further legislative approval or expend certain funds without the enactment of Senate Bill No. 1 or House Bill No. 4049,” that the move would be “contrary to both law and Michigan’s constitutional system.”
On Tuesday, Gov. Whitmer signed HB 4047 and HB 4048, while issuing line-item vetoes to other spending not tied to restrictions.
What could happen with $841 million of federal funds within HB 4048 for K-12 schools is still unclear. Republicans crafted the bill to tie the $841 million to HB 4049, which would have moved the authority to close schools to in-person instruction and shut down sports from the Department of Health and Human Services to local health departments under specific conditions.
As to SB 1, it appears that a veto by Gov. Whitmer could kill about $350 million in federal epidemiology and laboratory capacity grant funding.
Some education leaders have, however, pointed to language in the School Aid Act, which is what HB 4048 would amend to appropriate $1.95 billion for schools, and said that it could provide an avenue for the Governor to issue the vetoes she later issued and still have the $841 million to allocate.
Debate on the resolution was limited to some verbal jabs delivered by both Shirkey, in defense of the proposal, and Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D-Flint).
Ananich proposed an amendment – which failed along party lines – to cap the legal costs for legal counsel at $10,000. He said enriching lawyers as part of the Republican majority’s ongoing battle with the Governor is a ridiculous waste of taxpayer dollars.
Republicans have said the governor is unwilling to negotiate with lawmakers. To this, Ananich said to Republicans that Budget Director Dave Massaron “is literally begging to negotiate with you” on desperately needed supplemental funding, adding that Republicans have never offered their own pandemic response plan.
“Instead, it’s the same old talking points,” Ananich said. “Metrics, metrics, metrics. The Governor won’t meet with us. Over and over and over again, time and time again. But in reality, the only plan you’ve offered is what we’re voting on today. Sue, sue, sue. Obstruct, obstruct, obstruct.”
Ananich called on Republicans to reject the resolution and get to the negotiating table and “act like adults.”
To this Shirkey countered that the residents of the state are “begging for direction and clarity as to what they have to do” to get past all of the state-imposed restrictions they have had to endure over the last year during the pandemic.
“This reduction and this cascading decline of infection rates, for instance, had occurred, began naturally, began before vaccines were even on the scene and it continues,” Shirkey said. “That’s because the people of Michigan know what to do, they know what to do. And they’re just waiting to be informed, inspired, encouraged, and then trusted. And right now, we’re still under an environment where this governor does not trust citizens of Michigan to do the right thing.”
Shirkey said no business would choose to be open if given the choice if it would negatively impact their employees, customers, and suppliers. He said the administration is still trying to make determinations for the public despite a year of growing knowledge of how to take measures to protect people from the virus.
“I completely and categorically reject the notion that we haven’t been trying to work together,” Shirkey said. “We’ve asked for clarity so that the citizens of Michigan can know with certainty what they have to do to prove they can be trusted, and that has yet to be determined and yet to be presented, and it’s a shame.”
A request Thursday to a spokesperson for Whitmer for comment on the resolution and possibility of legal action was not immediately returned.
$841M to Schools in Question as Whitmer Signs, Vetoes COVID Bills
The attempt by Republican majorities in the Legislature to force Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to sign their COVID-19 appropriations relief bills without her input into their contents resulted Tuesday in Gov. Whitmer striking about one-seventh of the funding with line-item vetoes and vetoing a separate bill to transfer some epidemic authority from the state to local authorities.
Gov. Whitmer’s line-item veto of about $650 million from HB 4047, which contained general coronavirus relief measures, and HB 4048, which contained funding for schools, outraged the business community because the governor struck $405 million in relief for businesses. The House attempted rare votes to override the vetoes but fell short of the two-thirds majority needed.
Still unclear was the fate of $841 million out of the $1.95 billion HB 4048 would appropriate to K-12 schools.
Republicans structured the bill to prevent the appropriation of $841 million to schools if she vetoed HB 4049, which would move the authority to close schools to in-person learning and shut down sports from the Department of Health and Human Services to local health departments. Gov. Whitmer vetoed that bill.
State Budget Office spokesperson Kurt Weiss said the administration is still reviewing the language in the bill governing that $841 million and has not determined yet whether it thinks it can be disbursed despite the veto. Some school groups have said the School Aid Act declares federal funds, which are the funds in question, are automatically appropriated. Steven Liedel, an attorney with Dykema and former legal counsel to Gov. Jennifer Granholm, said there also is a path for the governor to declare the way the Republicans tried to tie the bills together unconstitutional.
“Normally, I provide state departments with guidance in implementing appropriations legislation by identifying budget boilerplate that violates the Michigan Constitution of 1963,” Gov. Whitmer wrote in her signing letter. “In the interest of getting this money to work for Michigan, I am signing Enrolled House Bills 4047 and 4048 of 2021 without delay, absent the usual instructions to departments regarding implementation. However, when legal review of this bill’s budget boilerplate is complete, I will direct state departments to implement this legislation consistent with constitutional requirements.”
The Governor’s veto of the bill to transfer powers away from DHHS was no surprise. She has steadfastly resisted any attempts to limit executive power.
In her veto letter to the Legislature, Gov. Whitmer said schools and sports are open in Michigan. She also said COVID-19 does not observe school district or local health department boundaries and there are times when a statewide order is necessary. Further, school district boundaries often cross county and health department boundaries, so it makes “little sense” to place authority only at the local level.
“Why the Legislature rushed this bill to my desk while they continue to let billions of dollars for schools and aid to Michigan families gather dust is a mystery to me,” she wrote. “House Bill 4049 is a reckless idea, poorly executed and poorly timed.”
As sent to Gov. Whitmer, HB 4047 and HB 4048 contained $4.2 billion of the $5.6 billion Gov. Whitmer requested.
Gov. Whitmer used her line-item veto pen to strike the following items from HB 4047 and HB 4048:
- $150 million to the Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund to offset the impact of fraud;
- $405 million for business property and unemployment tax relief and bar and restaurant fee relief;
- $86.8 million for nonpublic schools; and
- $10 million for a summer school grant program.
Despite the vetoes, the bills do contain several major items.
There’s $600 million to increase Food Assistance Program benefits by 15% through June and for children who otherwise would be fed at school or in day care. There’s $150 million to continue a $2.25 per hour raise for direct care workers for seven months starting March 1 and $207.5 million for COVID epidemiology and laboratory capacity, with another $347.3 million for a contingent fund for the same purpose.
There’s also $220 million for emergency rental and utility assistance and $110 million for vaccine administration, among other spending measures.
“I think it’s great news that we’ve been able to get some of the federal funding available to us appropriated, including passing two of my key proposals to provide a wage increase for direct care workers and increased funding to help expand vaccinations for Michiganders who are 50 years old or older,” Gov. Whitmer said in a statement. “However, the reality is that there is more work to be done and there are still billions of dollars in federal funding that we need to get out the door to help businesses and families across the state. The bills I received were not negotiated with me or my administration, and I continue to call on the Legislature to ensure that we work together to ensure we maximize every penny that is available. There were problems in the bills that I had to veto, and I expect the Legislature to step up to fix the bill to allocate all of the money so we can get back to normal as soon as possible.”
Budget Director Dave Massaron, in a letter to Rep. Thomas Albert (R-Lowell), the House Appropriations Committee chair, and Sen. Jim Stamas (R-Midland), the Senate Appropriations Committee chair, called for negotiations to commence no later than Friday.
Albert and Stamas, however, slammed the Governor’s actions.
“I am disappointed the Governor chose keeping her absolute power over getting more federal money out to our schools and providing relief to struggling small businesses. It is a sad day for our system of government, our students trying to catch up, and the family-owned businesses trying to survive after being shut down by the Governor without a path for reopening,” Stamas said. “We have more to do, and I hope the Governor will work with us and share her spending plans on how to best invest the remaining federal funds instead of just asking us to give her a blank check. We owe it to the Michigan people to ensure our federal assistance is directed to families and small businesses in need.”
Albert, who has emerged as one of Gov. Whitmer’s most unrelenting, searing critics, excoriated the Governor.
“Overall, this relief plan is not exactly what the Governor wants or what the Legislature wants, but it’s what the people of Michigan need,” he said in a statement. “I am deeply disappointed the Governor has vetoed so much of it, but not surprised. The Governor’s history of putting her own political ambitions ahead of the people she was elected to serve began well before this pandemic. This is the same Governor, after all, who vetoed support for children with autism, senior citizens, and law enforcement in 2019. Today was just the latest example of her misguided priorities – and thousands of Michigan families will suffer because of it.”
The House took action quickly, holding veto override votes on two sections of HB 4047 and two sections of HB 4048 just hours after the Governor announced the line-item vetoes.
While both bills originally passed with more than two-thirds support, none of the override attempts received enough support as enough Democrats closed ranks around Gov. Whitmer to sustain her veto. The votes were 64-45 and 66-43 for two line items in HB 4047, which would have restored the Unemployment Trust Fund dollars and the $405 million in business relief.
For HB 4048, the line items the GOP-majority sought to restore included the money for private schools and the assistance for parents sending children to summer school. Those override attempts failed 64-45 and 65-44.
Republicans lambasted the Governor for the vetoed funding, noting those dollars were not tied to any restrictions in the administration’s powers to handle the pandemic.
Rep. Sarah Lightner (R-Springport) said the governor was choosing power over people and, “let Michigan down.”
“Again with a stroke of a pen on a critical relief bill, she put Michiganders in an even more precarious position,” Lightner said.
She then said the Legislature stands “ready and willing” to work with the governor, despite the GOP leaders in the Legislature not negotiating any items in the supplemental bills sent to her desk receiving the line-item vetoes.
House Minority Donna Lasinski (D-Scio Township) called the veto override attempts a “lose-lose” for the Legislature and residents of Michigan.
“It is clear that Michiganders are losing again so Republicans can score political points. This is not a game. This is people’s lives. So let’s just stop this nonsense, and the games,” Lasinski said. “Bring all our federal dollars home. Get vaccines distributed quickly. Get back to work. Get back to school. Get back to visiting our loves ones. That’s the work. If we’re not doing that, we’re not doing anything. We’re just playing games. End this now.”
Rep. Steven Johnson (R-Wayland) also said the Legislature should stop playing politics, adding that if a member voted yes on the bill when it passed, they should vote yes on the override.
Several Democrats did vote for the overrides.
Rep. Kelly Breen of Novi, Rep. Sara Cambensy of Marquette, Rep. Jim Haadsma of Battle Creek, Rep. Nate Shannon of Sterling Heights, Rep. Karen Whitsett of Detroit, and Rep. Angela Witwer voted yes for all four overrides.
Rep. Kevin Coleman of Westland and Rep. Cynthia Johnson of Detroit voted yes on the second override vote for HB 4047 and Rep. Cara Clemente of Lincoln Park voted yes on the summer school funding override in HB 4048.
While the Whitmer administration signaled the fate of the $841 million for schools is unclear, several Republican lawmakers said there is no doubt that money will not be disbursed.
School groups called for stopping the placing of politics over the disbursement of needed funds to schools.
“As our elected officials continue to play politics with even the most basic Government functions, we need them to take a step back and think about who they are impacting: our kids,” said Mark Greathead, president of the K-12 Alliance of Michigan and superintendent of the Woodhaven-Brownstown Schools. “Our students are already working hard to push forward from this pandemic and not a single one of them cares about who is winning these power battles in Lansing—they are simply asking for the support they need to recover and succeed once again. Everyone involved needs to set aside their politics—even on just this one issue—and focus on what our students need right now.”
Business organizations, including some that have been supportive of Gov. Whitmer, or at least less likely to publicly criticize and interested in finding ways to work with the administration, slammed the veto of tax and fee relief to businesses.
“Gov. Whitmer has vetoed small business support multiple times, even as the state has received a windfall of financial support from the federal government,” said Brian Calley, president of the Small Business Association of Michigan. “Today’s veto sends a message that the state is not serious about the survival of small businesses. We worked hard to ensure that small business support was not tied to curtailment of any emergency powers because we didn’t want the Governor to have to pick between emergency powers and supporting small business. She could have done both because small business support was not tied to emergency power reductions.”
Scott Ellis, executive director of the Michigan Licensed Beverage Association, said the Governor and the Legislature need to stop playing politics.
“Our industry is in a dire situation and we don’t have time to play these games – the hospitality industry needs help now,” he said in a statement. “It’s up to the House, Senate, and Governor to figure this out. Continuing to let the partisan divide hurt our state is unacceptable.”
House Again Passes Funding Vetoed By Whitmer Tuesday
The relationship between Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the GOP legislative majority remains as bleak as ever with the House on Wednesday passing two bills appropriating funds that were vetoed by the Governor on Tuesday with no sign Republicans are going to negotiate any time soon.
SB 29 and SB 114 include $150 million to the Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund to offset the impact of fraud; $405 million for business property and unemployment tax relief and bar and restaurant fee relief; $86.8 million for nonpublic schools; and $10 million for a summer school grant program.
The move also saw procedural drama with House Minority Floor Leader Yousef Rabhi (D-Ann Arbor) calling a point of order on Rep. Thomas Albert (R-Lowell), which was of course denied by the GOP majority, asserting he had violating House rules by impugning Gov. Whitmer.
However, in a rare move, four House Democrats joined all Republicans in upholding the motion when it came up for a roll call vote. While disagreements on policy within a caucus is common, splitting on procedure is rare and in the past has brought repercussions for members breaking ranks.
Democrats mostly opposed the bills passed Wednesday. Rep. Sara Cambensy of Marquette and Rep. Karen Whitsett of Detroit joined all Republicans in voting yes on SB 29, which passed 60-50.
SB 114 saw more Democrats come over as it passed 66-44. Rep. Kevin Coleman of Westland, Rep. Alex Garza of Taylor, Rep. Jim Haadsma of Battle Creek, Rep. Tullio Liberati of Allen Park, Rep. Nate Shannon of Sterling Heights, and Rep. Angela Witwer of Delta Township joined Ms. Cambensy and Ms. Whitsett in voting yes.
Gov. Whitmer, in vetoing the funding, noted Republicans did not negotiate the supplemental with the administration.
In a floor speech, Albert said the governor claimed her veto of the $600 million in various programming was because they were tied to restrictions in epidemic powers. However, they clearly were not tied to limits and the governor’s statement said the items were not negotiated, as the bills were not negotiated with the administration at all.
But then Albert in his speech indicated the lack of negotiations was by design: “I wonder if the Governor now knows how the rest of us have felt over the past year.”
He then made the false claim that the Governor, “has literally locked people in their homes.”
“To put it more simply the governor has tried to take over the lives of everyone we represent without even the courtesy of consulting with their elected representatives,” Albert said.
Albert said if the Governor wants input on the budget, then “maybe the people should have a voice.”
The speech prompted a procedural fight as Rabhi said Albert’s comments broke House rules. Rep. Pamela Hornberger (R-Chesterfield Township), who was presiding over the chamber, said she gave leeway to representatives on both sides of the aisle and denied the point of order.
However, Hornberger has only gaveled down Democrats while speaking.
Still, the motion stood with four House Democrats joining all Republicans in upholding Ms. Hornberger’s ruling. They were Cambensy, Haadsma, Whitsett, and Witwer. Haadsma later tweeted he errantly thought he was voting on the bill as opposed to procedure.
The Democrats opposing the supplemental appropriations on Wednesday reiterated past arguments about the Legislature sitting on federal funding for schools and other COVID relief.
“This is embarrassing,” Rep. Samantha Steckloff (D-Farmington Hills) said in a floor speech.
A letter from Albert to Budget Director Dave Massaron indicated negotiations are as unlikely still moving forward. And the state is set to get even more federal funding for coronavirus response.
“I am willing to meet and negotiate the allocation of funds as soon as the administration agrees to meet with the Legislature to negotiate its epidemic orders,” Albert (R-Lowell) wrote.
Massaron, in a statement, responded to the letter: “It’s disappointing that we are back to talking about pandemic powers and not budget resources that will help the state move past the pandemic.”
With Ballot Measure Looming, Dems Try Again on ELCRA Expansion
Legislative Democrats on Monday reiterated they believe there is support in the Legislature to expand the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to include sexual orientation and gender identity as voters could potentially decide in 2022 if the GOP majority does not take a vote.
Rep. Laurie Pohutsky (D-Livonia) introduced HB 4297 last month and Sen. Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield) will introduce legislation this week to expand ELCRA to include sexual orientation and gender identity or expression.
For the first time, the lawmakers said, there is a Republican co-sponsor in both chambers. Rep. Tommy Brann (R-Wyoming) again co-sponsored the legislation in the House – he did the same last term – and Sen. Wayne Schmidt (R-Traverse City) is co-sponsoring Moss’ bill.
Alongside the legislation, Fair and Equal Michigan is awaiting certification of the signatures it collected to get a similar measure on the ballot in 2022. The Legislature could also act on that proposal within 40 days of its certification to approve it instead of having it go on the ballot.
There has been no indication from Republican leadership that anything has changed on the measure. Most Republicans have traditionally opposed the measure, at least publicly, particularly out of concern for religious rights. One of those who has long opposed ELCRA expansion is Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake).
“Discrimination in any form is wrong,” he said in a Monday statement. “The hurdle with this effort has always been the unintended consequence of trying to avoid discrimination against some people by allowing discrimination against others. It’s conceivable to find a landing spot on this issue but it must include affirming and protecting religious freedoms. It is this question that will likely determine whether a legislative solution can be reached.”
Business groups in general support the proposal.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said at a virtual press conference on Monday that no one should be discriminated against based on who they love or how they identify.
“Although our country and our state have come a long way and issues of LGBTQ-plus rights and discrimination, there are still gaps in the law. This bill to amend Elliott-Larson Civil Rights Act addresses those gaps and protects Michiganders against discrimination based on several factors, including sexual orientation and gender identity. With this bill, Michigan has the opportunity to become a model of equality. Every step we take toward enshrining protections on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation will impact Michiganders for generations to come. And to make our state more competitive and welcoming and to show that we are committed to walking on the right side of history.”
Pohutsky and Moss both said they believe there is enough support in both chambers to pass the measures, even if few Republicans want to co-sponsor the legislation. They said there are multiple paths forward for the policy to become law.
“Unfortunately, as much as we’ve talked about this being a nonpartisan or bipartisan issue, there is still a stigma that this is a Democratic issue, and there are representatives on both sides of the aisle who have a personal stake in this, obviously, but are concerned that this is a Democratic issue,” she said. “So, I think that there is legislation of all manners that you are supportive of but don’t necessarily want to co-sponsor. … I think that this is something that we’re shifting the perspective on, but there are still some that are still clinging to the thought that this is a Democratic issue.”
Moss said it is the time for a “reckoning” on the issue for a few reasons.
“Number one, we have Republican co-sponsors now in the House and Senate. So, I think it’s going to give people who had never put their name on the paper before a chance to reevaluate their position,” he said. “Number two, we’re going to have to deal with this in the Legislature in one way, shape, or form. Either by legislation or by the petitions that are coming to us. And so that ballot proposal (can) come up to the Legislature for a vote, and we can all put our voice on record there to just support the ballot proposal and be done with this endeavor and secure LGBTQ rights. This is the moment for those who have decided not to sign on but are open to supporting the issue to learn more, and we’re giving them that space to do so.”
The latest effort also comes in the wake of former House Speaker Lee Chatfield being hired to lead Southwest Michigan First, an economic development organization, and then quickly resigning due to his well-known stance as a legislator opposing ELCRA expansion.
“We will no longer tolerate the license to discriminate citing faith,” Equality Michigan Executive Director Erin Knott said at the press conference. “Lawmakers thinking about opposing equality must think differently or they run the risk of being unemployable when they are termed out of office.”
A spokesperson for House Speaker Jason Wentworth (R-Farwell) said only he would look at the details of the ballot proposal if signatures are certified by the Bureau of Elections.
Moss said the public support of the proposal, “far exceeds” the GOP leadership in the Legislature.
“And so it’s really a call to action for those on the other side, either join us on this effort, and better understand what we’re trying to achieve here, or don’t,” he said. “But at the same time, we’re not advocating for the membership of the Senate or the House of Representatives to be heard, we’re advocating for the state of Michigan and public support to be heard on this.”