Michigan Capitol, March 22, 2019 | Susan J. Demas
Republican-led conference committees advanced the remainder of the 2020 Fiscal Year budgets ahead toward likely votes next week in the full chambers, where they are unable to be amended.
The start of the fiscal year is Oct. 1.
Most notably, the GOP-led conference report for the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) moved ahead with a plan that will allocate an additional $400 million in one-time General Fund dollars for road and bridge construction, a plan Democrats — including Gov. Gretchen Whitmer — oppose.
That’s because they feel the funds could be better spent on other priorities and that roads need a boost in dedicated revenue every year, such as an increased gas tax.
Earlier on Thursday, the Legislature advanced the School Aid Fund conference report, showing deep rifts among legislative Democrats.
Additionally, a conference report passed for general government operations, which includes the secretary of state and attorney general’s office, and includes some striking changes.
There was $3.4 million for the new Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission included in the Legislature’s budget. Shawn Starkey, spokesman for Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, said the office feels that’s in keeping with the language of the law that 61% of voters approved last year and is not concerned about the location of the funding.
The change, however, brought some concern to state Sen. Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) regarding the independence of the commission.
“It’s really important that this redistricting commission be independent, and then have the resources to do the job the citizens meant it to do when they overwhelmingly passed [it],” Irwin told reporters.
Nancy Wang, executive director of Voters Not Politicians, the group that spearheaded the redistricting commission ballot proposal, also expressed disappointment with the Legislature’s move.
“These types of political games are exactly what voters stood firmly against in the last election,” Wang said. “We object to any attempt to undermine the Commission and the Secretary of State, and we remain committed to doing everything we can to ensure Michigan’s first Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission is a success.”
Meanwhile, included in the conference report is a mandate for Attorney General Dana Nessel to appear before the state House and Senate Appropriations Subcommittees on General Government within 30 days of filing any lawsuit against the federal government.
During the 2018 Lame Duck session, the GOP-Legislature passed a bill that would curb the AG’s power by allowing the House or Senate to intervene in court cases, but then-Gov. Rick Snyder vetoed it.
Nessel spokeswoman Kelly Rossman-McKinney declined to comment on the conference report on Thursday evening, only saying the office is “carefully reviewing” the budget information.
Conference committees consist of six members and are split between House and Senate members to merge differences between the chambers’ budgets. Because Republicans control both chambers, they have the majority on each committee.
Democrats on Thursday voted against the MDOT, Department of Education, corrections and general government conference reports. They largely supported or passed on reports for the Department of Agriculture, judiciary, Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, Department of Insurance and Financial Services and Department of Health and Human Services.
The MDOT budget was saved for last. In sum, the conference report allocates almost $5.4 billion for the department that oversees the state’s beleaguered roads and bridges, a 7.4% increase over last year.
Whitmer ran on “fixing the damn roads” and proposed a 45-cent gas tax hike as her preferred mechanism for doing so. That was greeted coldly in the Legislature, including by some in her own party, like state House Minority Leader Christine Greig (D-Farmington Hills).
Earlier this month, the governor, state House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) agreed to table a comprehensive roads solution until after they struck a deal on the budget. However, talks fell apart last week because the governor has opposed using one-time, General Fund dollars for roads and bridges in next year’s budget.
So GOP leaders moved ahead with their own budget plans.
Following the passage of the conference report, state Sen. Adam Hollier (D-Detroit) slammed the Legislature’s road funding proposal.
“I think when you look at what we just did, we just wasted General Fund money that should have been going to schools,” Hollier told reporters. “I mean, I think the governor proposed the real way to fund transportation. And we didn’t do that. And all of this, I think it’s a farce.”
Total road and bridge-funding dollars allocated in the transportation conference report are $868 million, according to the nonpartisan House Fiscal Agency.
Senate Appropriations Chair Jim Stamas (R-Midland), said he shares that goal, but the proposed boost being offered by the Legislature is being demanded by constituents around the state, he told reporters.
“I certainly support continuing to find a longer-term solution,” Stamas said. “So yes, this is one-time funding for this year, but it continues to make sure that we’re making that investment that people asked for.”
Whitmer doesn’t appear to be buying it, saying in a statement on Thursday night that the transportation conference report “proves that the Republican-controlled legislature is totally unserious about passing a long-term solution.”
The governor so far hasn’t said whether she would veto any parts of the budget.
“While Republicans pat themselves on the back yet again for what they claim is ‘record funding,’ the fact is, these one-time dollars are enough to fix four bridges in a state that currently has over 1,000 state and local bridges rated in poor condition,” Whitmer said. “I’m ready to work with anyone who’s serious about solving this problem, but until Lansing Republicans put a real long-term solution on the table that doesn’t involve cutting teacher pensions to fill potholes, our roads will continue to get worse, putting drivers and our economy at risk.”
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