Money to help smooth vaccine distribution, keep Michiganders in homes, and help schools during the pandemic is waiting in Lansing. Republicans won’t spend it.
The support Michigan schools need to return to in-person instruction isn’t coming. Neither is the money local health departments need to strengthen their vaccine distribution efforts. And the money earmarked to help keep Michiganders fed, employed, and housed in the extraordinary times we are in is nowhere to be seen.
Because Republicans in the Legislature refuse to release it.
Money allocated to the state for coronavirus relief has sat for weeks because of the Michigan Legislature’s refusal to work with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on most issues unless she ends the coronavirus protections her office put in place to mitigate the spread of the virus.
Two Weeks Lost
As Gov. Whitmer was preparing to deliver her State of the State address Jan. 27, the Republican-held Legislature blocked 13 of her appointments to various state offices and held back more than $5 billion in federal coronavirus relief Michigan received for schools or the public health infrastructure critical to the vaccine rollout.
“These were federal dollars that were sent to our state. They were supported by our bipartisan congressional delegation,” the governor told reporters in January. “To hold those things hostage to try to change the balance of power in Lansing is just cruel and reckless.”
In the past two weeks, little has changed in Lansing. What was cruel and reckless in January has become the status quo in February.
In a joint statement Feb. 4, state Sens. Rosemary Bayer (D-Southfield), Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit) and Erika Geiss (D-Taylor) called for a break in the new normal in Lansing.
“We must work together to get this important funding into our communities to support the distribution of vaccines and the safe reopening of our schools,” the senators wrote. “Leaving people to struggle is not, and should never be, a partisan issue. It is a crisis of basic needs and public health that simply must be addressed now. We urge our Republican colleagues to put the necessary votes on the board because Michiganders can’t afford to wait any longer.”
That call for collaboration was echoed by Gov. Whitmer on Tuesday.
“We need Republicans and Democrats in Michigan’s Legislature to appropriate these dollars, all of these dollars, as quickly as possible,” Whitmer said. “Delaying efforts to fully appropriate these resources and leaving dollars on the table that are so crucial to our economic recovery, it threatens the progress that we have made to date.”
When this showdown began, House Speaker Jason Wentworth (R-Clare) said that Republicans were eager to come to a compromise with Gov. Whitmer, but were not eager to actually compromise their position on anything. Asked what Republicans were willing to offer in exchange for effectively ending the state’s ability to manage the public health response to the pandemic, he told reporters it was “to be determined.”
Whitmer had, for the record, invited Republican leaders to discuss the coronavirus restrictions. They didn’t show up.
The Paternalism of Republican Oversight
When the showdown began, Michigan Republicans tied education funding to Gov. Whitmer ceding all authority over education and school athletics pandemic protections to counties. That’s not a surprise.
Since a month into the pandemic, Republicans have wanted to restrict or outright eliminate the ability for Gov. Whitmer to respond to the pandemic.
All the while, an undercurrent of sexism has characterized the resistance to COVID-19 protections in Michigan. This was underscored by a recent video, where state Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clark Lake) touted “spanking” the governor. Video of Michigan’s government proceedings appears to show Shirkey apologizing (to Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, not Gov. Whitmer) for his tone in that video, but not the content of his remarks, adding that he “doesn’t back down easily.”
Shirkey’s sexist comment has been part of Republican’s feud with Gov. Whitmer, but extends way beyond just that context. State Rep. Laurie Pohutsky wrote Thursday in the Detroit Free Press that it is a pattern of behavior Shirkey is likely never to change. But the sexism against Whitmer in the Michigan Legislature spreads farther than Shirkey’s comments.
Republican paternalism is characteristic of the “oversight” the GOP has tried to assert throughout the pandemic. And now, it’s threatening Michiganders directly.
The New Republican Plan
Wentworth’s current proposal is to dole out the federal relief in small doses over a long period of time.
“Despite what the governor said, our plan simply refuses to throw all the money in at once. It’s not what we do in our households and it’s not what we’re going to do with hard-earned taxpayer dollars,” Wentworth said in a statement. “We’re going to be careful, responsible, and accountable.”
The piecemeal approach Republicans have taken comes from a misguided place. In a household, bills come due monthly and are relatively few, typically limited to services and utilities. So if a Netflix subscription lapses, the impact on daily life is easily managed. But these things aren’t true of governments.
Michigan finances a lot of programs and services, particularly during a pandemic. If any point of those services or supply chains loses faith in the state’s willingness and ability to pay, those services could slow down.
For Michiganders facing hunger, that means starvation.
For Michiganders needing the vaccine to return to daily life, that means continued risk of catching the coronavirus.
For Michiganders in need of rent assistance, that means losing shelter in the coldest month of the year.
Republicans’ piecemeal approach isn’t dealing with streaming services in a household’s budget, it’s dealing with the lives, safety, and security of Michiganders. And this costly strategy is in the service of the goals of oversight, which the legislature is perfectly capable of doing if it wants to. But oversight isn’t the goal.
“Spanking” Gov. Whitmer on these issues is.