TRAVERSE CITY — Getting back to work and finishing the state budget is imperative for Michigan lawmakers.
That was the sentiment Gov. Gretchen Whitmer shared on Thursday during an interview at the Record-Eagle office in downtown Traverse City. She maintains finalizing a budget is the most pressing issue in the state.
“I’ve been in Lansing ready to work even though the Legislature hasn’t been. This is where I’m losing sleep at night,” Whitmer said.
Whitmer proposed her budget in March, which calls for $60.2 billion in spending with a $10.7 billion general fund, and said there hasn’t yet been any “real, meaningful alternative” from the Legislature. Her proposal includes nearly $15.4 billion in state school aid and $5.8 billion for transportation and roads.
“We are quickly getting close to the end of the fiscal year — Sept. 30 we have to have a budget in place and it really needs to be to my desk two weeks before that,” she said. “So, we are getting down to crunch time and school districts are already at over a month into their fiscal years, and that’s why it’s pretty unconscionable that they decided to take a vacation this summer without getting it done.”
Both the House and the Senate have passed their respective budget proposals since March. The House is proposing $59.1 billion in spending, a $10.7 billion general fund, $15.8 billion in school aid and $5.8 billion for transportation and roads. The Senate’s calls for $59.4 billion in spending, a $10.5 billion general fund, $15.2 billion in school aid and $5.1 billion for transportation and roads.
“The Senate has proposed a balanced budget that includes record funding for both roads and schools, and we’re not even talking about any tax increases,” said state Sen. Wayne Schmidt, R-Grand Traverse, chair of the K-12 and Michigan Department of Education Appropriations and Transportation subcommittees. “We’re still willing to negotiate. We’re still working on road funding.”
The governor said it’s the first time in 9 years a state budget was not set before lawmakers recessed for the summer. She said school district officials are especially stressed about the situation.
“I’m trying to push them to get back to work and get serious about passing something that addresses the skills gap, gives us the ability to clean up water and, of course, fixing roads and bridges across Michigan,” Whitmer said.
Operating a school district without a state budget in place puts those districts “behind the proverbial 8-ball,” Glen Lake Community Schools Superintendent Jon Hoover said.
“We don’t know what the funding from the state level is going to be, yet we’re trying to make sure we have all of our personnel needs staffed and taken care of beyond any of the supplies and physical plant needs that have to be addressed before the start of the school year,” Hoover said. “No question, that puts us in a pretty bad spot.”
Hoover said most school districts simply apply last year’s school aid disbursements to the current year’s budget, as all school districts must approve a budget by June 30.
“We just hope we would see — at the very least — an incremental increase,” Hoover said.
Whitmer said the oft-discussed 45-cent gas tax in her proposed budget is an effort to right what’s been wrong with the state budget for years.
“People see the 45-cent gas tax and that’s all they focus on, but when we actually rebuild roads at the gas pump, all the general fund money that’s been diverted into filling pot holes gets back into the general fund. And this is funding things like EGLE, like the PFAS response team, cleaning up drinking water, ensuring that school districts have access to hydration stations where they’ve got contaminated water,” she said.
Schmidt said it seems as if only Whitmer is on board with the gas-tax proposal and that not a single legislator has put forth a bill including the 45-cent hike.
“Her own party in the House did a plan that didn’t even include any of her ideas. They came up with their own ideas,” Schmidt said. “She is basing everything on a 45-cent gas tax increase. None of the legislation has been introduced. No one from her party introduced it. It’s a budget based on hypotheticals.”
Whitmer maintains the tax in a “critical component” of her budget, as it is expected to increase revenue by $2.5 billion.
“So it’s as much about cleaning up drinking water in Michigan as it is fixing the damn roads, and educating our kids and turning around outcomes for kids. People focus on the gas tax, but actually when you do that, it’s one lever that gives you the ability to get more resources into cleaning up drinking water in Michigan,” Whitmer said. “If we fall short on that front, it’s going to limit our ability to really be as aggressive as we need to on PFAS.”
The deadline for the state to pass a budget is Oct. 1.