Michigan House clears $4.2B COVID-19 spending plan, ties some funds to limits on health department’s authority

A more than $4.2 billion plan to fund various COVID-19 response and relief measures while tying some of the money to policy bills limiting the administration’s authority to issue pandemic-related orders advanced through the House Wednesday afternoon.

The spending plan, the bulk of which comes from federal funds appropriated to Michigan by Congress, cleared the Senate on Tuesday and will soon head to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s desk. Whitmer, who was not involved with the negotiations, has advocated for the Legislature to advocate all of the federal spending available to the state and has previously vetoed efforts to curb her administration’s powers.

Taken together, House Bills 4047 and 4048 include $2.3 billion for vaccines, testing, direct care worker payments and property tax relief, as well as $1.9 billion for addressing learning loss and returning schools to in-person learning. The two spending bills earned bipartisan support, passing 85-25 and 77-33, respectively.

More than $840 million in school funding included in 4048 is tie-barred to House Bill 4049, which would shift authority on closing in-person learning and sporting events during the COVID-19 pandemic from the state to local health departments. That legislation also passed the House Wednesday.

And slightly more than $347 million in COVID-19 testing funds is tied to passage of Senate Bill 1, which would require legislative approval of DHHS emergency public health orders after 28 days and calls for the specific science and data behind each declaration. Whitmer vetoed a similar bill last session.

Senate Bill 1 could not immediately be taken up by the House Wednesday, and House Bill 4048 was amended on the House floor, meaning the Senate will need to approve those changes. But the package earned support from the Republican-majority Legislature, where sponsors said the legislation was a “lifeline” for people still dealing with the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.

House Appropriations Chair Thomas Albert, R-Lowell, on the House floor also urged Whitmer “change course immediately” on COVID-19 measures: “The economic devastation that is being unleashed is significant.”

Read more: Whitmer vetoes bills that would limit public health orders and repeal governor’s emergency powers

Whitmer earlier this year issued her own $5.6 billion proposal for spending the funds, and Democrats have largely adhered to support of that plan. House Democrats, following the lead of Senate Democrats earlier this week, attempted to amend the legislation to allocate all of the federal dollars and remove the tie-bars to policy bills.

Many House Democrats ultimately voted for House Bills 4047 and 4048, although House Democratic Leader Donna Lasinski, D-Scio Township, said not using all the federal funds at Michigan’s disposal is hampering the state’s ability to administer vaccines and continue responding to the pandemic.

During a Tuesday afternoon news conference, Whitmer said she’s been trying to negotiate with the Legislature and will continue efforts to do so. She urged lawmakers to “get to the table” and release funds as soon as possible, noting the more than $5 billion in federal funding for Michigan is currently “gathering dust.”

“Washington didn’t send us this money to sit on it, they sent it to us because people need it,” she said. “They sent it to us because it’s crucial to economic re-engagement, and protecting public health is crucial for our seniors and for our students alike, and small businesses, too.”

Whitmer’s plan contained some elements that Senate and House Republicans have argued aren’t immediately pertinent to coping with the pandemic, such as $225 million in grants for job creation initiatives and $5 million to implement increased security measures at the Michigan State Capitol.

Read more: Michigan Senate approves $1.9 billion for vaccine distribution, direct care worker payments, school aid

The deal struck by House and Senate Republicans includes funding vaccine distribution, COVID-19 testing, emergency rental assistance and school aid, plus an extension and increase on direct care worker payments.

While it didn’t use all of the federal funding available to Michigan, the final plan allocated more than previous proposals on how to spend the money put forward legislative Republicans.

House Bill 4047, sponsored by Rep. Timothy Beson, R-Bay City, includes $110 million for vaccine distribution allocated one-third at a time. Additional funding includes $555 million for COVID-19 testing and $600 million in food assistance benefits.

The bill also incorporates $220 million in rental assistance, $300 million for the Department of Treasury to establish a property tax relief program for struggling businesses and a $150 million deposit into the state’s employer-funded Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund.

House Bill 4048, sponsored by Rep. Brad Paquette, R-Niles, sends $1.94 billion to fund school programs. More than $1.65 billion in federal money to ensure districts are able to afford $450 per pupil and fill gaps for underfunded districts.

Additional programs included in the bill are $90 million for K-8 summer school programs to help offset learning loss during the pandemic shutdowns, $45 million to help high schoolers recover lost credit hours, $17 million for more before and after school programs and $21 million to pay staff that operate during the summer.