Lawmakers OK $55B budget bills; $7.5B in virus relief left

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LANSING — Michigan lawmakers who finished passing the state budget Wednesday will next turn to allocating an unprecedented amount of federal COVID-19 rescue funding — money that largely is flexible and can be spent however the state decides.

For months, Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has been proposing ways to allot $6.5 billion in discretionary funds approved by Congress and President Joe Biden. About $5.7 billion remains after the bipartisan budget deal and the enactment of K-12 and supplemental spending bills in July.

The initial allotments will expand free preschool eligibility for low-income 4-year-olds, help schools wanting to transition to a year-round calendar, and assist hospitals and nursing homes confronting financial pressures.

The aid also will be used to partly replenish the state unemployment benefits fund and increase Medicaid payments for nursing facilities. New economic development grants will help rehab vacant buildings and develop “place-based infrastructure” associated with social zones, downtowns and outdoor dining in communities disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

Legislators also have left unspent $1.8 billion in federal coronavirus aid with which they have less discretion and $3 billion in surplus state revenues, according to the state budget office.

“I’m looking forward to additional infrastructure, education and water packages that we will be able to put together over the coming months,” House Democratic Leader Donna Lasinski of Washtenaw County’s Scio Township told reporters after the House passed $55 billion in spending on 99-6 and 97-8 votes. The governor will sign it and likely declare some Republican-backed vaccine and mask provisions constitutionally unenforceable before Oct. 1, when the next fiscal year begins.

Most recently, she proposed spending billions of the federal pandemic funding to boost the business climate and to expand health care and infrastructure, including to bolster access to mental health services, replace state psychiatric hospitals and build a new public health lab. Other initiatives would expand tuition-free programs for adults ages 25 and older and frontline workers, provide grants and loans to small businesses, replace lead water pipes and upgrade state parks.

Republicans in the GOP-led Senate have floated proposals as well. One would rehabilitate or replace local bridges, beyond those that will be fixed under the budget agreement. Another would replace lead pipes, upgrade drinking water and wastewater facilities, repair dams and clean up sites contaminated with “forever chemicals” called PFAS, or perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances.

“In the months ahead, we will continue to take advantage of the opportunity to make additional one-time investments that will strengthen Michigan for years to come,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Thomas Albert, a Lowell Republican.

GOP legislators included provisions in the budget designed to restrict state and municipal coronavirus vaccine requirements — including for government employees — ban vaccine passports and to prohibit school masking mandates that have been ordered by county health departments. President Joe Biden plans to require vaccinations for employers with at least 100 workers, which could affect state and municipal employees regardless.

Whitmer, who has said she does not plan to mandate the vaccine, is expected to strike the anti-mask language. Republicans said there is an agreement on at least some of the provision related to vaccines.

“Government funds cannot be used to create or support a vaccine passport, and it ensures that government employees are afforded vaccine exemptions. Additionally, college students must be given vaccine exemptions or given reasonable accommodations,” Albert said.

Whitmer spokesman Bobby Leddy said her office was conducting a legal review of the legislation and was aware of likely unenforceable or unconstitutional language that she “will address.” He said the governor made clear during negotiations that she would not bar businesses, local health departments and schools from using “all of the tools necessary” to combat COVID-19.

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