Michigan lawmakers begin passing budget bills; no deal with Whitmer

The Michigan Capitol Building in Lansing
The Michigan Capitol Building in Lansing

LANSING, Mich. – Republicans who control Michigan’s Senate on Tuesday began approving a $66.4 billion budget that would spend 5% more than in the current year, thanks to an influx of federal funding, but about $728 million less than what was proposed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

Democrats voted against seven of nine bills, showing a legislative deal with the Democratic governor remained weeks or months away. The Legislature is required to pass 2021-22 spending bills by July 1, though the fiscal year will not start until Oct. 1.

The GOP-led House also began passing budget legislation Tuesday, including $9.5 billion in supplemental federal COVID-19 relief aid.

“We continue to stay focused on our families, on our small businesses and at the same time understanding that we do have a pandemic that we're still coming out of,” said Sen. Jim Stamas, a Midland Republican who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee. The Senate, he said, is in a “good spot to go into discussions with the House and/or the governor.”

One area of difference among the three sides is the funding of two new tuition-free programs for adults age 25 and older and frontline pandemic workers to attend community college. Whitmer wants $186 million to keep intact or expand Michigan Reconnect and Futures for Frontliners.

The Senate supported $30 million for the Reconnect program, which was authorized with bipartisan support in 2020. Sen. Ken Horn, a Saginaw Republican, said it would be unprecedented to provide two additional years of funding instead of one. “We are still vetting the success of the program,” he said.

The House GOP's plan would not continue Reconnect funding even though the program was only launched in February.

Sen. Dayna Polehanki, a Livonia Democrat, said Reconnect has already proven “wildly successful" after more than 62,000 applicants were approved.

“These Michiganders must have certainty that the program is there to back the program beyond one year,” she said.

Senators voted Tuesday to add a provision to the Department of State budget that would attempt to prohibit Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson from proceeding with a plan to make permanent an appointment-only system for branch visits that took effect during the pandemic. They unanimously supported an amendment seeking to require the Unemployment Insurance Agency to open for visits from claimants who have trouble getting benefits.

Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr., an East Lansing Democrat, called for bipartisan negotiations to commence.

“None of this process is over until we all get into a room, find a way to work together and come to an agreement,” he said.

Despite clashing along party lines over many bills, Republicans and Democrats found more consensus on K-12 and college funding — though the House and Senate plans differ.

Whitmer proposed an increase in base per-student aid of $164, or 2%, for most school districts. The House backed a $100, or 1.2%, boost while the Senate supported a $250, or 3%, increase.

Legislators are expected to approve additional budget measures this week. State economists will revise revenue projections on May 21 — a key step in the annual budget process.

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Follow David Eggert at https://twitter.com/DavidEggert00