Sign encouraging social distancing at Bond Falls in the Upper Peninsula | Susan J. Demas
On the one-year anniversary of the first COVID-19 cases being discovered in Michigan — which has now grown to more than 600,000 cases in the state with almost 16,000 deaths — Republicans in charge of the state House launched into another attack on Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer over pandemic restrictions.
Whitmer on Tuesday signed about $2.5 billion in federal COVID aid, while vetoing millions in funding and attempts to curtail her administration’s power to mitigate the pandemic. The governor noted that the budget supplementals from the GOP Legislature were not negotiated with her administration.
On Wednesday, the House passed measures Whitmer just vetoed. House Appropriations Chair Thomas Albert (R-Lowell) gave a fiery speech, declaring, “I wonder if the governor now knows how the rest of us have felt over the past year.”
The Republican also made the false claim that Whitmer “has literally locked people in their homes.”
“To put it more simply, the governor has tried to take over the lives of everyone we represent, without even the courtesy of consulting with their elected representatives,” Albert said.
Whitmer began issuing emergency health orders in March 2020 after the first cases were diagnosed. Like almost all governors, she issued a stay-home order — which has not been in effect since June 1. It did not bar people from leaving their homes. Essential workers were still allowed to go to work; people could go to essential businesses that were open like grocery stores and gas stations; and people were allowed and encouraged to go outside for exercise while observing social distancing.
The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), which now issues epidemic orders after the Michigan Supreme Court last fall overturned the 1945 law Whitmer had used for many of her early orders, issued a new round of restrictions before Thanksgiving as the second wave hit Michigan and the rest of the nation. There was no new stay-home order.
Most restrictions have been lifted, including the ban on indoor dining, in-person instruction for high schools and colleges and youth contact sports. Restaurants, bowling alleys, movie theaters and more are open with capacity restrictions. The state still has a mask mandate.
Studies have shown that Michigan’s tough restrictions have stopped the spread of coronavirus and saved lives.
However, Republicans have made the case for months that the state should have no restrictions, following the model of red states like Texas and Iowa. They have made that a stipulation of any COVID relief agreement with the governor, but have not indicated areas on which they would compromise.
“I am willing to meet and negotiate the allocation of funds as soon as the administration agrees to meet with the Legislature to negotiate its epidemic orders,” Albert wrote in a Wednesday letter to Budget Director Dave Massaron, who had issued a letter Tuesday inviting GOP leaders to meet to strike a deal on spending.
Whitmer has invited lawmakers to weekly meetings with epidemiologists that are used in crafting the state’s response to COVID, but has said GOP leaders often don’t attend. Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) told reporters in January that he does not attend most data meetings because he would prefer to have “conversations” rather than “presentations.”
House Minority Floor Leader Yousef Rabhi (D-Ann Arbor) on Wednesday called a point of order on Albert, arguing he had violated House rules by his false comments about Whitmer. That was voted down.
The Advance asked Whitmer’s office for a comment on Albert’s remarks.
“From the beginning of the pandemic, Governor Whitmer has been willing to work with anyone who wants to work together to save lives. When hours and days mean the difference between life and death during a pandemic, Governor Whitmer acted swiftly to slow the spread of COVID-19, and the results speak for themselves,” said spokesperson Bobby Leddy. “It’s time for the legislature to stop playing partisan games, and step up to help us grow our economy and get back to normal, and we look forward to working with them to get it done.”
The House took action Wednesday on bills, Senate Bills 29 and 114, that would restore $650 million that Whitmer vetoed: $150 million to the Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund to address fraud; $405 million for business property and unemployment tax relief and bar and restaurant fee relief; $87 million for non-public schools; and $10 million for a summer school grant program.
“It feels like Groundhog Day. Today was yet again another opportunity to bring money home and give Michiganders the relief they need – the relief House Democrats have been fighting for every step of the way,” said Rep. Samantha Steckloff (D-Farmington Hills). “Instead, we had the same debate we’ve been having about whether Michigan business, workers, schools and families deserve relief.”
The bills are now before the Senate.
In December, then-President Trump signed a COVID relief bill containing $5.6 billion for Michigan. Even if Whitmer signs the version of the bills passed by the House Wednesday, there are still billions in unspent federal funds. That includes a huge chunk for public schools, as the Legislature tied $842 million for K-12 schools to a measure that ceded some of DHHS’ authority to local health departments. Whitmer vetoed it.
And there’s more money to come. As the Advance reported Wednesday, the U.S. House sent a $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill to President Joe Biden’s desk, which includes $10.3 billion in state and federal funding for Michigan.
However, the Associated Press reported Tuesday that U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing) got language included in the package that would hinder the GOP-controlled Legislature from slow-walking this round of education funding. States are required to allocate these funds within 60 days of receiving them.
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