Whitmer seeks boost in tuition, child care, bridge spending in Michigan budget

FILE - In this Jan. 27, 2021, file photo provided by the Michigan Office of the Governor, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer delivers her virtual State of the State address the state in Lansing, Mich. Irked by the sweeping use of executive orders during the COVID-19 crisis, state lawmakers around the U.S. are moving to curb the authority of governors and top health officials to impose emergency restrictions such as mask rules and business shutdowns. (Michigan Office of the Governor via AP)

LANSING, Mich. – Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Thursday proposed a $67 billion state budget that she said would aid Michigan's pandemic recovery by solidifying new programs to expand eligibility for free community college tuition, bolstering child care assistance and boosting local bridge repairs.

The Democratic governor's third annual spending blueprint, unveiled to the Republican-led Legislature, also calls for $570 million to address learning loss and K-12 enrollment declines on top of a $162-per-student, or 2%, increase in base aid for most traditional districts in the fiscal year that starts in October. Better-funded districts would get $82 more per student, or roughly 1%.

More immediate coronavirus-related needs, such as vaccine distribution, would be funded with multibillion-dollar supplemental spending bills — primarily through the release of federal COVID-19 relief aid that Whitmer has been urging lawmakers to pass soon.

The governor said she focused on putting people back to work and a safe return to in-person instruction at schools.

She wants to double spending on Futures for Frontliners, which covers community college tuition for essential workers who worked in the early months of the pandemic, to include those who lost their jobs when her administration reinstated business restrictions to curb surging infections in the late fall. She hopes to quadruple spending on Michigan Reconnect, which launched last week with bipartisan support and helps adults age 25 and older without a college degree to obtain an associate’s degree or postsecondary certificate at a community college or private training school.

Her plan would temporarily expand eligibility for child care subsidies, to 200% of the poverty level instead of 150%, for 18 months and waive families' out-of-pocket copays — helping up to 150,000 kids.

Whitmer called it a “game-changing investment.” Women and working moms, particularly minorities, have “borne the brunt of this economic pain during this pandemic,” she said. “By making a sizable investment in child care, we can help alleviate the burden faced by working families.” At least one business group applauded the move.

A top Republican lawmaker, however, said the governor's proposal would not do enough to get students back into classrooms during the virus outbreak, citing a “tremendous amount of uncertainty for parents.” Whitmer has strongly urged districts to provide the option by March 1, saying it is safe, but has said it should be a local decision — as allowed under a 2020 law that passed with bipartisan support.

"What certainty is provided in this budget that kids will have access to in-person instruction going forward? asked House Appropriations Committee Chairman Thomas Albert of Lowell.

Whitmer told reporters that if the Legislature quickly OK'd billions of supplemental federal K-12 aid she requested last month, “schools would have much greater resources to ensure that they can get back and stay safe in doing so.”

The governor proposed extending a $2-an-hour pay raise for direct care workers in nursing homes and those providing Medicaid-funded in-home services.

She also emphasized bridge repairs, calling for $300 million to fix or replace about 120 local bridges — a year after she announced $3.5 billion in borrowing to rebuild deteriorating state-owned highways and bridges over five years.

The $67.1 billion recommendation would be a 4.4% increase from $62.7 billion in the current fiscal year. There would be a significant amount of one-time funding due to increased federal aid and surplus revenues. The plan includes no tax increases, but some fee hikes, and proposes eliminating the sales tax on tampons and other menstrual products.

Whitmer wants to finish legislative negotiations by the end of June, three months before the budget would start. The process was delayed in 2019 due to a stalemate with GOP lawmakers and in 2020 because of uncertainty over revenue.

“We're still in the midst of this economic and health crisis. The quicker that we do some things to give people more assurances, I think the better for a lot of reasons," she told The Associated Press.

The proposal also would distribute:

— $70 million to universities and community colleges that adopt testing and other COVID-19 policies. That would augment a 2% boost in operations funding.

— $38 million to nursing homes that have lost money during the pandemic.

— $70 million to two-dozen cities losing income tax revenue because non-residents are working at home during the pandemic.

— $6.7 million to expand coverage of sickle cell disease to include around 400 adults. The inherited blood disorder primarily affects Black people.

Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II said the initiative stems from a task force that is addressing coronavirus racial disparities.

“It's difficult for people who present to even get the types of pain medication they need to be acknowledged as a sickle cell patient, to get the kind of testing that can lead to the right kind of responsive treatments that are available to them,” he said. A lot of adolescents lose care when they become adults, he said, due to a coverage gap.

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