There’s nothing like free fed money to unite Michigan’s warring pols

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It’s not quite like Scrooge McDuck diving into a mountain of gold coins, but Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, House Speaker Jason Wentworth and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey have a bunch of new money to play with.

Let’s estimate the state’s annual General Fund is about $11 billion. Cut that in half and that’s what President Joe Biden is sending our way in COVID-19 relief money with few strings attached.

Coincidentally, for the first time in a year, the governor last week had her first face-to-face meeting with just her and Michigan’s Republican legislative leaders in the room.

Amazing how quickly a once-in-lifetime influx of cash can bring “frenemies” back together again. 

It’s time to get along. The Republicans can’t spend this federal COVID unless Whitmer signs off on it. Likewise, she can’t spend any money unless lawmakers give her something she likes.

A prolonged standoff over the money may send it back to Washington, D.C., which neither side wants.

Local governments are getting their own $4.4 billion. Another $3.9 billion must be spent on education. Higher education is getting a $1 billion. Child care $1.1 billion. 

Michigan government is getting $5.7 billion in free money (until the federal government gets around to start paying off the debt). There’s no shortage of ideas, except they can’t cut taxes or address pension debt.

It can go to help those most impacted by the COVID pandemic. It can pay essential workers more money. It can go to rebuilding water or sewer pipes.

The governor is crafting her to-do list with the assistance of former House Democratic leader Sam Singh and his team at Public Policy Associates.

Inevitably, more money is going to go to help the unemployed or the poor pair their rent, their mortgage and their utility bills. Small businesses that were forced to shut down during the pandemic, like restaurants, are going to get a slice.

Singh said he’s pleased to assist the governor and the State Budget Office navigate through it all. His team is digging into the best practices of other states as part of its research. The goal is to manage the money in a way that Michigan gets the best, most effective benefit of this money.

Behind the scenes, legislative leaders grumbled whether this work with PPA and other stakeholders was laying the groundwork for another legislative work-around. 

They played that game during the pandemic with Whitmer’s emergency restrictions. They’re not interested in doing that again.

But that’s not the case, said Budget Office spokesperson Kurt Weiss. 

“It’s not uncommon to get outside support to develop policy ideas and this was an opportunity to do that without using any state dollars,” Weiss said. “We think that having this input will be beneficial for the Legislature” as everyone dives into the money.

House Appropriations Committee Chair Tom Albert, R-Lowell, is already staking his ground.

He rolled out a list of preferences today that included sinking $1.2 billion into roads ($700 million for pay down bond debt), $250 million for water and sewer upgrades, $150 million into rural broadband and $595 million into erasing the entirety of the Flint Water crisis settlement.

Albert also wants to sink $350 million into the Rainy Day Fund. He sees putting $50 million into consolidating office space so more employees can work from home and save the state even more money down the road.

There’s food assistance and COVID testing and vaccine distribution that’s going to be covered, too, by this money under this plan

The kicker is that Albert wants to limit Whitmer from using the State Administrative Board to move money around, like she did in a big way in the fall of 2019 after lawmakers dumped a non-negotiated budget on her desk.

As far as he’s concerned, “Foul me once, shame on you. Foul me twice, shame … .”

Clearly, working together after so much time of both sides doing their own things isn’t going to be that easy.

(Kyle Melinn of the Capitol news service MIRS is at melinnky@gmail.com.)

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