GOP-led Legislature OKs bills banning mask mandate for kids, limiting Whitmer’s powers

By: - May 13, 2021 5:03 pm

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During Thursday’s sessions in the House and Senate, Republicans moved the remaining bills for the Fiscal Year 2022 budget, while also passing bills prohibiting mask mandates for children, banning vaccine passports and limiting the powers of the State Administrative Board. 

This week, both GOP-led chambers have been working to pass their own budget plans for the next fiscal year, but haven’t been able to garner bipartisan support for many bills. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced her state budget recommendation in February worth $67.1 billion for the next fiscal year starting Oct. 1, an increase from the state’s current $62.8 billion budget. She and GOP leaders have not struck a deal.

One of the polarizing bills taken up Thursday was the Department of Health and Human Services budget, Senate Bill 79, which included an amendment, offered by Sen. Tom Barrett (R-Charlotte), prohibiting the use of funds from being used “to develop, create, implement or enforce vaccine passports or any similar document.”

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has not proposed vaccine passports in Michigan, but GOP-leaders are taking extra steps to ensure that it doesn’t happen. 

Earlier Thursday, the House Oversight Committee voted on a bill banning governmental entities from producing or issuing a COVID-19 vaccine passport.

During Barrett’s floor speech in support of his amendment, he made anti-abortion comments comparing the autonomy of a woman’s body to the autonomy of someone who chooses not to get vaccinated or carry a vaccination passport.

“I would say a common theme on the other side of the aisle is to shout about ‘my body, my choice,’” Barrett said.

Barrett then went on to argue that people who decline the vaccination are being discriminated against, while women are accepted for getting abortions. 

The DHHS budget was passed along party lines, including Barrett’s amendment and another amendment that would prohibit any funding to be used to “create or enforce a mandate requiring an individual under the age of 18 to wear a face mask.”

Several Democrats offered their own amendments to the bill, including more funding for DHHS’ Office of Equity and Minority Health and funding for sickle cell disease services. All amendments offered by Democrats were rejected. 

Another bill offered in the Senate, Senate Bill 428, introduced by Sen. Curtis VanderWall (R-Ludington), would ban mask mandates for children age 5 and under. This bill passed along party lines.

One bill that did get unanimous support in the Senate was Senate Bill 37, introduced by Sen. Jim Stamas (R-Midland), which would appropriate some of the federal COVID-19 relief funding for the current fiscal year.

The supplemental bill, containing $424.7 million in federal funds and $21 million in General Fund money, allocates $378.3 million in federal funds for emergency rental assistance, $46.4 million in federal funds for Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) disaster assistance and $21 million in General Fund money for purchasing of Venture Michigan Fund vouchers.

This is only a portion of the federal COVID-19 relief aid approved by former President Donald Trump in December and President Joe Biden in March. 

In the House, House Bill 4082, introduced by Rep. Ben Frederick (R-Owosso), limits the state’s administrative board from transferring funds without the approval of the Legislature, but it is tied with federal COVID-19 relief funding that has very specific guidelines on how it can be spent — and this is likely outside those guidelines. 

After a 2019 budget fight before the pandemic when the GOP-led Legislature sent Whitmer an un-negotiated budget, she vetoed almost $1 billion in spending and transferred $625 million between departments for her priorities. Republicans have been trying to yank that power from her since then.

House Bill 4420 allocates $3.3 billion in supplemental funds for 13 state departments and agencies for the current fiscal year, $2.3 billion of that is from federal COVID relief funds. 

But that federal relief aid is tie-barred to HB 4082, which would prohibit the board from increasing or decreasing an item of appropriation by more than 3% or $125,000, whichever is greater. Additionally, an inter-transfer of appropriations for a department or institution  would need approval by the House and Senate Appropriations Committees. 

This is only the latest move by Republicans to limit the Whitmer administration’s executive powers during the pandemic by tie-barring COVID-19 relief funds, and it is unlikely the governor will sign it.

Now that both chambers have passed their budget plans, the bills are primed for the conference committee process involving members from both chambers as they hash out differences. Typically, legislative leaders and the governor agree on budget targets before then, but it’s not clear how negotiations will go amid tensions over spending priorities and pandemic policies.

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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.