Michigan legislature poised to approve $841 million for pandemic relief, testing, rental assistance

Michigan lawmakers were poised Tuesday to approve an additional $841 million in spending on pandemic relief and other things, including for coronavirus testing at schools and emergency assistance to help low-income renters.

The proposed supplemental funding was advanced out of a conference committee to the House and Senate floors as the state grapples with one of the country’s highest COVID-19 infection rates and record-high hospitalizations.

The bill includes $736 million in nondiscretionary federal COVID-19 aid that Congress passed in March and last December. Of that, $150 million will go to schools to help them screen and test for the virus, which was half of the amount Gov. Gretchen Whitmer sought. Another $168 million will go toward relief for airports, and $140 million will go toward emergency rental aid.

"If we don’t get that testing money out the door right now, schools are going to be in real trouble. If we want to continue in-person learning, the only way to do that is to have proper testing and proper contact tracing," said Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr. of East Lansing, who is the top Democrat on the Senate’s budget panel.

Federal funds would also go toward a range of areas, including genomic sequencing to identify variants, curbing the virus inside prisons, fighting substance abuse, and supporting "strike teams" that would help with onsite testing at nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.

The legislation includes $36 million in state funding to address the water crisis in Benton Harbor, where the supply is contaminated with lead.

The remaining $150 million in testing money for schools is included in a separate spending bill that the House plans to pass Tuesday but that the Senate won’t consider until next year.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Thomas Albert, a Lowell Republican, said he decided not to allocate all $300 million for schools now because of problems when the Michigan National Guard inadvertently confiscated testing kits from a K-12 district in his area to redistribute to other districts.

"It was just a bad process. I think we have a better one here," he said, pointing to a new method and saying $150 million is "enough to give us some running room to figure that out."