Michigan GOP outlines plans for spending billions in federal Covid aid

Republicans who control the Michigan House unveiled a plan Tuesday to spend federal COVID-19 aid, including a proposed $1.6 billion for road, water and broadband infrastructure.

The supplemental budget legislation, which a committee will start to discuss Wednesday, would allocate $13 billion total, all but $1.3 billion of it from federal relief packages that were approved in March and December.

About half of the federal funding is non-discretionary and, once approved, must go to K-12 schools, local governments, child care, food and rental assistance, coronavirus testing and vaccine distribution. But the state has flexibility with nearly $5.7 billion, which can be used to respond to the pandemic and its economic fallout, boost pay for essential workers, continue government services in the event of lost revenue and invest in infrastructure, according to the nonpartisan House Fiscal Agency.

The House's mid-year proposal, announced the same day that GOP lawmakers began outlining some 2021-22 spending bills, is more detailed than a list of funding priorities Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer listed last week when she said she wanted input from the Republican-led Legislature after a dispute has left billions from the December rescue in limbo. State budget office spokesman Kurt Weiss called the House plan "the first step in the process in getting to work on making sure we maximize all of our federal resources, but we also need to be aware that the United States Treasury will providing further guidance that we will need to follow." 

The Senate is working on a proposal, too.

There would be $1.2 billion for road spending under the House blueprint, including $700 million to pay off debt from borrowing; $250 million for water and sewer replacement grants; and $150 million to boost high-speed internet in rural areas. Schools would get $45 million to upgrade heating, cooling and ventilation systems.

The House would spend $400 million to "help people move off unemployment and return to work," according to a news release that did not elaborate, and $205 million to renovate mental health facilities. Debt from the $600 million Flint water crisis settlement would be paid off more quickly and the consolidation of the state government's office space would be accelerated as more employees work remotely during and after the coronavirus outbreak.

"These are important steps for Michigan taxpayers and families," House Appropriations Committee Chairman Thomas Albert, a Lowell Republican, said in a statement. "It will save money and improve state services over the long run - while making sure our kids aren't asked to pay our bills down the road."

Last month, Whitmer twice vetoed proposed COVID-19 spending from the December package after the Legislature passed it without negotiating with her administration and tried to link funds to her agreeing to cede certain pandemic powers. This time, the House GOP wants to tie $6 billion in funding to a provision that would limit her power to shift money within departments, which she did during a 2019 budget impasse.

Republicans also propose $5 million to investigate the governor's virus-related nursing home policies and $1 million to study the effects of her pandemic orders, which the GOP has long criticized but which she has said are needed to save lives.