Whitmer ‘optimistic’ about reopening more regions, will testify in D.C. on COVID-19 response

Administration outlines budget woes

By: and - May 30, 2020 7:19 am

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer gives an update on COVID-19 | Gov. Whitmer office photo

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said more information about different regions of the state opening back up will be announced in the “coming days” as the rate of Michigan’s COVID-19 cases continue to drop.

“If it continues this way, I’m optimistic that in the coming days we’ll be in a position to take another step forward,” Whitmer said at a press conference Friday afternoon.

She said that she has a planned meeting Saturday to talk with health officials and other experts about next steps to reopen more functions in Michigan.

On May 22, Whitmer started phasing in the reopening of restaurants, bars and retail businesses in the Upper Peninsula and parts of northern Michigan, where case numbers have stayed low since the early days of the outbreak.

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Last week, Whitmer extended her stay-home order, first put into effect on March 24, through June 12.

On Tuesday, Whitmer will testify in front of the U.S. House subcommittee on energy and commerce oversight and investigation to discuss her approach for handling COVID-19 in Michigan. 

Whitmer will be joined by Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, and Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican. 

“There’s no question there is more work to do. And we must all keep doing our part. But I look forward to sharing the details of Michigan’s COVID-19 response on Tuesday,” Whitmer said. “We have an opportunity to show that Michigan is a leader. But we all must keep doing our part. Orders don’t fix the problem, it’s the response to them that do. And every Michigander should be proud of what we’ve accomplished. Let’s not drop our guard now.”

Whitmer has been pushing for more flexible federal aid to help cover some of Michigan’s lost revenue due to the pandemic and an expected budget hole of about $6.3 billion over two fiscal years, which she plans to address during her testimony. 

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“With regard to these shortfalls and what’s at risk here, in the midst of a pandemic, it would be incredibly short-sighted to force cuts into public health, public education and public safety. And yet, that’s the potential problem that we’re confronting,” Whitmer said. “And that’s what I’m trying to avoid by working to encourage Congress to take action, and it’s my hope that the Republicans in town are reaching out to the United States Senate leadership, as well as the White House to encourage them to move forward so we can avoid that.”

However, GOP legislative leaders have blasted Whitmer for waiting on Congress and not coming out for budget cuts. The GOP-controlled Legislature has not taken much budget action since the pandemic began.

Some House Republicans introduced a resolution on Wednesday that would deny the state federal bailout and financial relief during Michigan’s recession. 

“Bailing out states that have failed to budget responsibly will incentivize this type of behavior to continue in the future. By telling states that the federal government will not step in to save them in times of economic stress, there will be no reason for these states to continue to be irresponsible with taxpayer money in the future,” the resolution states.

Lead sponsor Rep. Michele Hoitenga (R-Manton) added that “it should not be incumbent on the federal government and American taxpayers to bail out states for their fiscal irresponsibility.”

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On Thursday, Whitmer spoke at length about the state of Michigan’s fiscal budget during a press conference and again called on the federal government to pass legislation to assist states in recovering from economic shortfalls caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

She listed her budget priorities and said it will take “both sides of the aisle” — including assistance from Congress  — to work on getting additional aid to small businesses and families.

“I’m hopeful that our partners in the federal government will do their part and work together to provide relief for states like Michigan,” Whitmer said.

Michigan’s general fund was “stretched thin” prior to the pandemic, Whitmer said. The pandemic-caused economic shutdown has also caused state tax revenues to drop. A sizable chunk of the budget has also been shelled out to take measures to lower the spread of COVID-19. 

“We need help from Washington, just like every other state,” state Budget Director Chris Kolb said Thursday. 

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The state’s current budget for Fiscal Year 2020 currently stands at about $60 billion. Kolb said he is ready to work with the state Legislature’s ideas on how to address Fiscal Year 2021 budget challenges. Ordinarily, the Legislature would have to send a  budget to Whitmer’s desk by July 1, under a deal struck after last year’s tense budget fight. 

Any budget shortfalls would need to be resolved by Oct. 1 — the start of the next fiscal year — to avoid a government shutdown. Michigan is barred from running a deficit, unlike the federal government.

However, the budget timeline needs to change because of pandemic-caused financial uncertainty, Kolb said. Another Consensus Revenue Estimating Conference (CREC) — in which state fiscal experts assess tax revenues and budget numbers — will be needed this summer, he noted. 

“There’s very little left to cut from state government without impacting critical and essential services and programs,” he said.

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The CARES Act — a $2 trillion stimulus package signed into law on March 27 to offset the pandemic’s derailment of the economy — does not contain language to let states use federal funds for existing items in state budgets affected by loss of revenue, Kolb said. 

The state budget office is running budget scenarios to determine where and if cuts can be made, Kolb said. Right now, the state’s “rainy day” fund contains $1.2 billion. Even if the state used “every single penny” in that fund, the budget problem would not be solved or closed, Kolb said.

“This is a 50-state problem. This is as bad — if not worse — than the Great Recession,” he said. “The only way we made it through that recession was with direct support from the federal government.”

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Allison R. Donahue
Allison R. Donahue

Allison R. Donahue covers education, women's issues and LGBTQ issues. Previously, she was a suburbs reporter at the St. Cloud Times in St. Cloud, Minn., covering local education and government. As a graduate of Grand Valley State University, she has previous experience as a freelance researcher for USA Today and an intern with WOOD TV-8. When she is away from her desk, she spends her time going to concerts, comedy shows or getting lost on hikes in different places around the world.

C.J. Moore
C.J. Moore

C.J. Moore covers the environment and the Capitol. She previously worked at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland as a public affairs staff science writer. She also previously covered crop sustainability and coal pollution issues for Great Lakes Echo. In addition, she served as editor in chief at The State News and covered its academics and research beat. She is a journalism graduate student at Michigan State University.