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Michigan GOP: Relief Spending Contingent on Whitmer’s Power

State legislators are developing a plan to spend the state’s nearly $4.2 billion in federal COVID-19 funding while stripping emergency powers from Gov. Whitmer and the health department’s director.

(TNS) — Michigan legislators are poised to pass a compromise plan detailing how to use billions in federal COVID-19 funding, agreeing to allocate much but not all of the approximately $5 billion given to the state in late 2020.

But more than $1 billion of the approximately $4.2 billion allocated does come with strings attached — GOP measures aimed at stripping emergency powers from the state health department director, and ostensibly Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

Whitmer has opposed such moves in the past, vetoing some last year. The plan offered now by the legislature presents a difficult scenario for her: it's less than the $5.6 billion plan she proposed. She can veto specific portions of budget bills while still approving the overall legislation, but vetoing the emergency powers bills imperils a massive amount of federal aid intended for schools and fighting the pandemic.

“This plan responsibly and effectively puts billions of dollars in federal COVID-19 funding to use meeting our state’s most critical needs — getting more people the lifesaving vaccines, increasing testing and supporting our struggling families and job providers,” said Senate Appropriations Chairman Jim Stamas, R- Midland. “While providing vital rental assistance, supporting our front-line workers and maintaining oversight over this important funding, this plan focuses heavily on educating our students."

The Senate passed three measures Tuesday: two offering billions in relief and one taking away powers. A fourth bill that would strip additional powers is expected to pass the Senate in the future.

The first funding bill, HB 4047, provides about $2.3 billion intended, including:

  • $370 million in COVID-19 testing funds. All of this money is contingent on Whitmer signing Senate Bill 1, a move to limit the length of time an emergency order issued by the director of the state health department can stay in place without additional legislative approval. Whitmer vetoed this exact bill last year. The Senate approved this bill on Tuesday, but did not grant it immediate effect.
  • $300 million in grants for workers and businesses affected by the pandemic and related orders or restrictions.
  • $283 million in emergency rental assistance. Congress appropriated $660 million for this — advocates argue not allocating the full amount mean people who cannot pay rent through no fault of their own will lose their homes.
  • $150 million to increase hazard pay for direct care workers. This extends a pay bump that ran out last month through September, and increases the raise from $2 per hour to $2.25 an hour.
  • $150 million to repay the state’s Unemployment Trust Fund. This is the pot of money used to pay unemployment claims. It's generally filled with money provided by businesses — this is likely to be a sticking point for the governor. She line-item vetoed a previous bill that tried to put tax dollars into this fund.
  • $55 million in business grants intended to offset unemployment taxes.
  • $50 million toward businesses charged licensing and inspection fees even though they were closed due to pandemic orders.
The second, HB 4048, provides a little less than $2 billion toward education. The measure includes:

  • At least $450 in additional funding per pupil, aimed at combating learning loss observed during the pandemic. This constitutes the bulk of the spending in the bill.
  • $189 million for summer school "to help students catch up."
  • $87 million in federal grants for nonpublic schools.
  • $20 million for student mental health services.
  • $11.7 million for standardized testing in reading and math.
  • $10 million to help reimburse parents for any summer school costs
Roughly $840 million of these dollars are tied to the fate of HB 4049, a controversial bill that would prevent the state health department from issuing any orders that would ban in-person classes or stop sporting events due to COVID-19.

While supporters of the measure argue it gives that power to local health officials, the law actually dictates very specific case rate criterion for when any order could be given. It also wouldn't allow local officials to look at outbreaks at prisons, nursing homes or possibly college dorm rooms in deciding whether to cancel events.

That means if every nursing home patient, jail and prison inmate and college student living in a dorm in a particular county had COVID-19, state lawmakers would want local health officials to seek out additional evidence before deciding whether to end in-person classes or cancel a basketball game.

Ingham County Health Officer Linda Vail previously said the measure "makes no sense" and cuts the legs out from underneath experts.

Neither measure includes language that would bar the state from using the CDC's Social Vulnerability Index to help determine how to distribute vaccines. Republicans in the Senate added language to a separate funding proposal that would bar it's usage, instead forcing the state to rely on population and other data in deciding how to distribute vaccines.

That goes against CDC guidance, and was deemed racist by several Senate Democrats. The compromise bills passed by the Senate Tuesday likely indicates the separate measure that stripped out the index will not be taken up by the House.

The deal comes after Republicans in both chambers earlier this year proposed allocating roughly half or less of the available dollars, arguing Whitmer and the state can not be trusted to appropriately spend additional money until they proved their ability to handle the first allotment.

All the while, families in need of food and trying to avoid evictions, businesses on the brink of closures, schools trying to plan for in-person classes and many others who would receive the funds begged for lawmakers to find common ground.

Although the major funding bills originated in the House, Senate amendments mean House lawmakers must review and reapprove those measures before they could be sent to the governor. They intend to do so as soon as Wednesday afternoon.

“This plan provides some much-needed relief, helps people cope with economic and social hardships, allows kids to catch up on lost learning, and boosts vaccination efforts so we can more quickly restore normalcy in our state,” said House Appropriations Chairman Thomas Albert, R- Lowell, in a statement.

“COVID-19 has been devastating on its own and the governor’s restrictions — among the harshest in the nation — have made things even harder. We’re providing another chance for the governor to stop focusing on her own power and start helping Michigan families, children and job providers.”

The plan does not restrict any of the governor's powers, instead taking away specific authority from the director of the Department of Health and Human Services.

Both funding measures received overwhelming bipartisan support in the Senate, although Democrats tried to decouple the relief bills from the power measures.

“Embedded in the bill is a political poison bill, meant to spark a veto and continue the political fight with the governor that seems so useful to the majority and that I can’t seem to understand,” said state Sen. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, speaking about an amendment he offered to get rid of a legislative bond between a funding bill and a power bill.

“My amendment is an attempt to end the seemingly unending war of ultimatums and reprisals, and new ultimatums and new reprisals, and simply get this help to the people that we’re supposed to be here to work for.”

The measures to take away pandemic powers from the state and tell local health experts when they can declare a COVID-19 emergency garnered some debate, passing on party-line votes.

Republicans, as they have for months, argued the measures are more about taking away powers granted to the state by previous legislatures and returning them to lawmakers.

"When in the history of humanity can we look back and say when leaders took power from the people, that they later just gave it back?" said Sen. Ed McBroom, R- Vulcan.

"And if we don’t continue to drive that message, and in particular if we don’t stand up for the sanctity for this branch of government in antagonism to the other branch, we will jeopardize our very future's ability to continue to speak for freedom and liberty for the people."

Democrats argued the moves again work to undermine the governor during a time of crisis.

“Stop playing budget hostage games then saying, ‘open up the state.’ You know without (federal relief), we can’t open safely, test our seniors, assisted living sites, or so people can visit loved ones, or continue to let them play sports safely,” said state Sen. Marshall Bullock, D- Detroit, after the vote.

“Stop these stories of a season of hardship and oppression due to a plague. While the governor is saving lives, many of you in this legislature and your predecessors have implemented laws that continue a legacy of disenfranchising and imposing a hardship to the Black and Brown communities that we have endured for over 450 seasons, and I don’t see you fighting to make that right."

It's unclear when the measures will make it to the governor's desk.

(c)2021 the Detroit Free Press. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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