Whitmer's $67B budget sends more money to schools, child care subsidies, bridge repairs

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Thursday will propose a $67 billion state budget that she said would aid Michigan's pandemic recovery by solidifying new programs to attend community college for free, expanding child care assistance, and boosting local bridge repairs.

The Democratic governor's third annual spending blueprint, to be unveiled to the Republican-led Legislature, also will call for $570 million to address learning loss and K-12 enrollment declines on top of a $162-per-student, or 2%, increase in base aid for most traditional districts in the fiscal year that starts in October. Better-funded districts would get $82 more per student, or roughly 1%.

More immediate coronavirus-related needs, such as vaccine distribution, would be funded with multibillion-dollar supplemental spending bills -- primarily through the release of federal COVID-19 relief aid that she has been urging lawmakers to pass soon.

Whitmer said she focused on three major priorities: economic re-engagement that "drives everything," a return to in-person instruction at schools and vaccine dissemination.

She wants to double spending on Futures for Frontliners, which covers community college tuition for essential workers who worked in the early months of the pandemic, to include those who lost their jobs when her administration reinstated business restrictions to curb surging infections in the late fall. She hopes to quadruple spending on Michigan Reconnect, which launched last week with bipartisan support and helps adults age 25 and older without a college degree obtain an associate's degree or postsecondary certificate at a community college or private training school.

"The business community is telling us we need (a) skilled workforce. Our workforce is telling us we're ready to earn those skills ... to get into those good-paying jobs," Whitmer told The Associated Press on Wednesday. "We're trying to eliminate the barriers that are keeping people from doing that -- and that is often the resources to do it."

Her plan would temporarily expand eligibility for child care subsidies, to 200% of the poverty level instead of 150%, and waive families' out-of-pocket copays. It also would extend a $2-an-hour pay raise for direct care workers in nursing homes and those providing Medicaid-funded in-home services. 

She also will emphasize bridge repairs, calling for $300 million to fix or replace about 120 local bridges a year after she announced $3.5 billion in borrowing to rebuild deteriorating state-owned highways and bridges over five years. The Legislature had rejected her proposed gas tax hike.

"We've got bridges that are closed," Whitmer said, citing one in Ottawa County that is unsafe, lengthening trips to a hospital. "When we have these critical infrastructure needs, we have to meet those needs." 

Michigan has a multibillion-dollar surplus from last fiscal year, and projected tax revenues in two major accounts this budget year and next are higher than previously expected -- driven by increased federal unemployment benefits and consumers' online purchases. 

The $67.1 billion recommendation would rise 7% from $62.8 billion in the current fiscal year. There would be a significant amount of one-time funding due to increased federal aid. The plan includes no tax increases.

Whitmer wants to finish legislative negotiations by the end of June, three months before the budget would start. The process was delayed in 2019 due to a stalemate with GOP lawmakers and in 2020 because of uncertainty over revenue.

"We're still in the midst of this economic and health crisis. The quicker that we do some things to give people more assurances, I think the better for a lot of reasons," she said.

The proposal also would distribute:

  • $70 million to universities and community colleges that adopt COVID-19 testing, quarantining and contact-tracing policies. That would augment a 2% boost in operations funding.
  • $38 million to nursing homes that have lost money during the virus outbreak.
  • $70 million to two-dozen cities set to lose income tax revenue because non-residents are working at home during the pandemic.
  • $6.7 million to expand coverage of sickle cell disease to include around 400 adults. The inherited blood disorder primarily affects Black people.

Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II said the initiative stems from a task force that is addressing coronavirus racial disparities.

"It's difficult for people who present to even get the types of pain medication they need to be acknowledged as a sickle cell patient, to get the kind of testing that can lead to the right kind of responsive treatments that are available to them," he said. A lot of adolescents lose care when they become adults, he said, due to a "doughnut hole" or coverage gap