Gov. Whitmer signs $2.4B in virus relief, vetoes other aid

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LANSING — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed at least $2.4 billion in COVID-19 relief spending Tuesday while vetoing roughly $650 million after Michigan Republicans did not negotiate with her and tied other aid to legislation that would have curbed her administration’s authority to order pandemic restrictions.

It’s the latest move in a long-running dispute between the GOP-led Legislature and the Democratic governor over her pandemic response. As expected, Whitmer vetoed a bill that would have ceded the state health department’s power to close schools and prohibit sports to local health departments, allowing them to act only if certain metrics were met.

Republicans had linked about $840 million in federal K-12 funding to the measure. The fate of that wasn’t immediately clear because the governor’s office and the attorney general were conducting a legal review. Whitmer vetoed $87 million in proposed federal funding for private schools and $10 million in federal dollars for parents whose children enroll in summer school until a deal is reached.

She also nixed $405 million in state-funded grants to pandemic-affected businesses and a $150 million deposit of general funds into the state’s unemployment account.

Whitmer said the legislation left more than $2 billion in federal money unallocated.

“As Michigan goes all-out to finally beat back this awful pandemic and turn the page to recovery, we need every last dollar to work for us before the Legislature takes its spring break,” she wrote to lawmakers. “I look forward to teaming up to make that happen, and that’s why I’ve asked my budget director to convene a meeting to start negotiations as soon as possible.”

She did OK federal funding, however, for vaccine distribution, testing, rental assistance and a 15% boost in food assistance benefits. A $2 hourly wage hike for direct care workers, which expired Feb. 28, will retroactively rise to $2.25 and be extended through September.

Republicans criticized the governor’s vetoes and, in the House, unsuccessfully tried to quickly override them, but Democrats who had supported the underlying bills last week voted no. After an October court ruling upended her emergency orders, Whitmer used the state Department of Health and Human Services to continue tightening and loosening restrictions under a separate law with origins dating to the 1918 flu pandemic.

“If she cared about anything other than preserving her own self-declared power, she would not have vetoed so much of the Legislature’s $4.2 billion relief plan,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Thomas Albert of Lowell.

He noted that the business aid was not tied to policy measures and accused her of “killing off whatever hope struggling families and job providers had left.”

Budget director Dave Massaron told The Associated Press that the administration wants to give additional aid to businesses but that the GOP’s proposed property tax relief program was poorly written and would have been difficult to implement.

“The relief wasn’t targeted effectively to the businesses most impacted. … We should get in a room and actually do something,” he said.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Stamas, a Midland Republican, in turn urged Whitmer to “work with us … instead of just asking us to give her a blank check.”

In a letter to legislators about the proposed surrender of some state epidemic powers, Whitmer said schools can be open for in-person instruction and youth contact sports have resumed. She said statewide orders are necessary at times and school district lines often cross local health department boundaries, noting that the agencies opposed the bill.

She called it a “reckless idea, poorly executed and poorly timed.”

Whitmer also is expected to veto a measure — not yet on her desk — that would require legislative approval to lengthen emergency health orders beyond 28 days after she disallowed a similar bill in December. Republicans linked $347 million in contingency funds for coronavirus testing to the latest legislation.

Various groups applauded the approval of at least $2.4 billion in funding, which came the same day Congress planned to finalize additional federal relief totaling at least $5.6 billion for the state and $4 billion for local governments, according to the state budget office.

At least 85,000 nursing home staff, home health aides and other direct care workers may benefit from the continued pay increase. The workforce has been plagued by low wages and high turnover.

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