House GOP: Schools won’t see $2B unless Whitmer admin. surrenders pandemic powers

By: - January 27, 2021 1:04 pm

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Michigan House and Senate Republicans rolled out their 2021 agendas this week, just ahead of Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s State of the State address Wednesday in which she will list her goals and priorities for the year. 

While Senate Republicans listed general priorities for the new term, Republicans in the House promised they would withhold $2.1 billion of school funding until the Whitmer administration surrenders executive powers on the pandemic and gives local health departments the authority to close in-person learning and sports activities. Republicans had raised this possibility at the beginning of the new term.

Under legislation the GOP Legislature passed last fall and signed by the governor, school districts have discretion whether to offer online or in-person learning or both. Whitmer has said she wants in-person classes to resume March 1.

Michigan House Appropriations Committee Chair Thomas Albert (R-Lowell) detailed the House Republicans’ $3.5 billion COVID-19 recovery plan Wednesday, centered around grant programs for restaurants and other businesses, distribution of COVID-19 vaccines and funding for local schools and allowing for sports to resume.

“Some Michigan school districts haven’t had in-person classes since March [2020] – that’s hurting kids in ways we can’t even imagine, and not just academically,” Albert said in a statement. “The disruption of sports and other extracurricular activities also takes a major toll. It’s going to take years for some of these students to recover academically. I will do everything possible to get kids safely in the classroom now.”

Whitmer’s COVID relief plan comes in at $5.6 billion and Senate Republicans’ proposal is about $4 billion. All rely heavily on federal dollars.

Whitmer wants federal COVID-19 relief doled out. Republicans want remaining restrictions lifted first.

Michigan has more than 550,000 COVID-19 cases and more than 14,000 deaths. More than a dozen lawmakers have disclosed they’ve had COVID-19 and former state Rep. Isaac Robinson (D-Detroit) died last March.

K-12 Alliance of Michigan Executive Director Robert McCann said the GOP plan is “immoral and fundamentally unacceptable.”

“Congress worked tirelessly to pass COVID-19 relief funding for schools and intentionally left no discretion to the states on how it is to be used. The Michigan Legislature has only one job as it relates to this funding: allocate it,” McCann said in a statement. “Students, teachers and staff have faced far too much during this pandemic to now have to worry about becoming pawns in a grossly miscalculated political stunt. House Republicans need to move aside and perform the simple task of allocating much-needed COVID relief funding to schools – many of which have already been offering in-person learning or will be soon – so that they can get to work on the recovery efforts of our students.”

In an interview with the Advance on Tuesday, Whitmer said Republicans withholding funding or disapproving her executive appointments, as the Senate did Wednesday, is “very problematic.”

“I’m hopeful that those were just knee-jerk reactions and that the Legislature sees how crucial it is that we move swiftly to get these dollars into our communities, to help people through this tough time,” she said. “And I’ll keep reaching out. I’m not going to return fire. I think it’s crucial that we stay focused on the challenge ahead because it is real. And that our ability to come together to meet that challenge will mean that we’re quicker and more effective at doing it.”

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Following the rollout of Republicans’ plans, Whitmer spokesperson Tiffany Brown said Wednesday it’s “not the time for partisan games.”

“Governor Whitmer is ready and eager to work with Republicans in the legislature to pass a bipartisan economic recovery plan that supports our small businesses and helps get families back on their feet. It is also crucial that we pass a plan that helps vaccinate our educators and puts more dollars into classrooms so we can get our kids back in school safely while staying focused on protecting public health,” Brown said in a statement Wednesday.

The 19 goals set by Senate Republicans were broken into three categories: “healthier families and communities,” “a healthier economy” and “building a healthier future.”

“The Senate Republicans believe every Michigander deserves the opportunity to live and prosper in a safe, healthy community. Senate Republicans are committed to building on opportunities to give Michigan families and communities greater peace of mind about the future,” said Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) in a statement Tuesday.

Sens. Kim LaSata (R-Bainbridge Twp.), Roger Victory (R-Hudsonville) and Sen. Dan Lauwers (R-Brockway Twp.) surveyed the Senate Republican caucus members to compile their list of priorities.

“The 20 members of our caucus represent a variety of communities and constituents with different needs and concerns, but the one thing they all have in common is a desire for a healthier Michigan across all aspects of life in our state,” said Shirkey.  

One of the main priorities for the Republican members in the Senate, according to their overview, is to fully reopen Michigan’s economy and lift the governor’s COVID-19 restrictions.

Throughout the pandemic, Republicans in the Legislature have often railed against the governor’s executive orders, faulting her for a slow vaccine rollout, the state’s economic decline and the hardships of family-owned businesses. They also have dismissed calls to codify the mask mandate to stop the spread of COVID.

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“We know Michiganders are concerned about the long-term impact of the governor’s policies and the pandemic on their loved ones and neighbors. We share their concerns, and we are committed to making sure they have the opportunity to follow their individual purpose and prosper in our state,” Shirkey said. 

Whitmer has announced that restaurants will be allowed to offer indoor dining as of Feb. 1, with some stipulations on capacity, social distancing and mask mandates. However, Republicans have said this doesn’t go far enough.

The statement from Shirkey also touted “nearly $4 billion to combat COVID-19” and the Senate Republicans’ COVID-19 relief plan, which provided grants to businesses and unemployed Michiganders, ensured storage and delivery of Michigan’s vaccine supply, assisted hospitals and nursing homes in hiring more nurses and increased pay for direct care workers.

Whitmer unveiled a $5.6 billion COVID-19 relief recovery plan last week, but House Speaker Jason Wentworth (R-Clare) told WILX-TV Wednesday that the governor does not have the “authority to appropriate dollars” from the federal government.

“That’s a legislature’s job. And so with her, without reaching out to us first unveils a plan. I wouldn’t even call it a plan. It’s more bullet points of things that she wants to address with the federal dollars. It’s just not going to work that way,” Wentworth said.

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Whitmer’s recovery plan includes $5 million for enforcing a weapons ban at the state Capitol. Wentworth this month said that he doesn’t believe that the Michigan State Capitol Commission has the ability to ban open-carry of firearms, although Attorney General Dana Nessel and outside legal counsel disagree.

Albert said the House Republicans’ plan “does not include money for items the governor proposed – such as Capitol metal detectors and corporate giveaways for new job creation – because those issues aren’t related to COVID.”

“I have reviewed the governor’s budget request and it is off the mark by a wide margin,” Albert said. 

Senate Republicans’ priorities also include “restoring balance in state government to ensure all Michiganders have a voice in the laws and policies of their state” and “ensuring confidence in elections.”

For months following the Nov. 3 general election, which was won by Democratic President Joe Biden, Republicans pushed debunked conspiracy theories of widespread election fraud, sowed distrust in the election system and held hearings where more baseless accusations were spread. 

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Allison R. Donahue
Allison R. Donahue

Allison R. Donahue is a former Michigan Advance reporter who covered 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.