Whitmer: Budget vetoes may be reversed if GOP resumes talks

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks about the state budget Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2019, during a press conference at the State Library and Michigan History Center in Lansing, Michigan. Also pictured is State Budget Director Chris Kolb, middle, and Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist. (Matthew Dae Smith/Lansing State Journal via AP)


Associated Press

LANSING — Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer called Tuesday for Republicans who control the Legislature to return to budget talks, hinting that her historic level of vetoes — nearly $1 billion worth — could be restored if a compromise is reached.

“Everyone in the Legislature should know that a line-item veto is not the death knell for any individual item, if people get back to the table and negotiate,” the first-year governor said.

Whitmer took an extremely rare step to shift $625 million within state departments on Tuesday and made public 147 vetoes she had issued the night before when she signed a $59 billion spending plan to avert a partial government shutdown. She declared 72 GOP-drafted provisions unenforceable.

The vetoes affect significant parts of the budget — including funding for roads, hospitals, counties, need-based college scholarships, tourism advertising and charter schools.

“I do not relish using these powers. But they were absolutely necessary because the budgets they sent were fatally flawed,” Whitmer said.

She said the way lawmakers finalized budget legislation without her input was “unprecedented,” and no one in Lansing should be surprised by her response.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, a Clarklake Republican, said Tuesday he was in “no rush” to address the vetoes.

“There is no amount of red pen usage that will result in enough green buttons pushed in the Senate to get my governor what she wants,” he said in a written statement.

It was a reference to her long-dead proposal to hike fuel taxes by 45 cents a gallon to fix the roads and boost education spending.

Talks between Whitmer and GOP leaders broke down three weeks ago because of a dispute over short-term spending on roads shortly after the two sides had agreed to table discussions on a long-term plan. Whitmer accused Republicans of giving her “ultimatums,” while they have said she “walked away” from negotiations.

Her largest single veto was a $375 million shift in discretionary general funds to the $5 billion transportation budget.

Whitmer, who campaigned on fixing the roads, said the move would not solve Michigan’s road-funding problem, as it amounted to “less than 20% of the cost for one year, when a 10-year plan to actually fix this is $2.5 billion of ongoing funding.”

Republicans said the funding would have boosted road repairs without a tax increase or cuts to essential services.

“The governor is trying to go around the legislators elected to be the voice of the people in state government and change how we invest taxpayer dollars,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Shane Hernandez, a Port Huron Republican.

Whitmer’s vetoes included $128 million from the $15 billion school aid budget, including $35 million that would have given 294 charter schools — strongly backed by the GOP — the same $240 per-pupil increase in base funding that many traditional K-12 districts will receive. Charters educate about 150,000, or 10%, of public students in the state.

“Somebody should fix this,” said Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies. “This isn’t about Democrats, Republicans in our minds. If budgets reflect the values that we have as a state, I can tell you parents and voters value kids and they don’t value politicians using kids as leverage for politics.”

Whitmer also nixed all $37.5 million for the Pure Michigan tourism and marketing ad campaign.

Whitmer said she “loves” Pure Michigan but had to respond to the GOP’s “phony road plan. … There are lot of tough decisions. A lot of people are going to be unhappy. That’s precisely why the Legislature needs to get back to the table.”

Counties decried roughly $60 million in rejected funding, including payments they receive in lieu of not being able to assess taxes on public land and reimbursements for housing state inmates. Hospitals expressed disappointment over funding reductions and said Medicaid reimbursements have long been inadequate.

The vetoes could have a disproportionate impact on rural communities, particularly in northern Michigan, and increase pressure on Republican lawmakers.

The Autism Alliance of Michigan criticized a veto that cut $1 million the nonprofit uses to run MiNavigator, which has connected thousands of people with autism to support services. Whitmer spoke at the organization’s gala earlier this year.

President and CEO Colleen Allen said the group raises money from private donors, but the loss of state funding would likely result in specialists being laid off.

“We’re statewide and don’t want to turn anyone away,” she said. “We want anybody to be able to call us.”

In addition to using her veto power, Whitmer convened the State Administrative Board to transfer funds within individual departments — a maneuver done just once before, in 1991, by then-Gov. John Engler.

About half of the total amount was moved to fully fund the Education Department now and reverse legislators’ bid to set aside three-quarters of its allotment in reserve, pending the release of A-through-F letter grades for public schools as required under a 2018 law.

Whitmer said the extraordinary meeting was necessary to protect public health and safety.

Democratic state Attorney General Dana Nessel, a member of the panel, cited a 1993 Michigan Supreme Court decision that upheld the legality of inter-transfers of funds.

Follow David Eggert on Twitter: twitter.com/DavidEggert00.