LANSING, Mich. (AP) — The Republican-controlled state House approved a nearly $3.6 billion coronavirus relief package Thursday but voted to withhold $2.1 billion for schools unless Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer cedes the state’s authority to prohibit in-person instruction or sports to local health officials.
The bills would distribute more than $2.6 billion, or roughly half, of Michigan’s federal COVID-19 aid that was enacted by then-President Donald Trump and Congress in late December for vaccine distribution and other priorities such as a 15% boost in food assistance benefits and rental assistance. Additional state funds would augment education funding and be used to help businesses hit the hardest by the pandemic, by providing grants for property and unemployment taxes along with government fees.
GOP legislators tied K-12 aid, however, to the governor’s unlikely signing of a bill that would let county health departments — not the state health department — close schools to face-to-face classes and bar sporting events. They could do so only if virus case rates, testing positivity rates and related hospitalizations exceed certain thresholds.
The measures were sent to the Republican-led Senate for consideration. The House voting coincided with Whitmer announcing the end of a statewide ban on contact sports. In December, her administration lifted a monthlong prohibition on in-person instruction at high schools.
Rep. Brad Paquette, a Niles Republican and sponsor of the K-12 funding bill, said it “goes directly to what our taxpayers want, and that’s getting our kids back to school and sports. There are no pet projects. There is no pork spending.”
Republicans voted to give an additional $250 per student to K-12 districts that offer in-person instruction by Feb. 15, if it continues for five days a week for the rest of the academic year. Though districts now decide whether to provide face-to-face or online learning or a mix, the governor has recommended that they offer an in-person option by March 1.
The GOP plan also would fund a voluntary K-8 summer school program, with $1,000 payments to participating teachers and up to $250 to help families cover transportation and tutoring costs.
Democrats opposed the bills after unsuccessfully calling for all $5 billion in federal funding to be disbursed quickly, like Whitmer has suggested. Republicans want to hold billions in reserve.
“Please release the funds that the federal government has already given us so that our communities, our next-door neighbors, our family down the street can get the assistance they need,” said Rep. Samantha Steckloff of Farmington Hills.
House Minority Leader Donna Lasinski of Washtenaw County’s Scio Township said linking school funds to a dilution of the state Department of Health Human Services’ power to act in the pandemic “is the most baldly partisan political game that’s being played with these dollars that we need here in Michigan working for people every day.”
The Senate has yet to outline its COVID-19 recovery plan.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Thomas Albert, a Lowell Republican, said the governor’s plan would fund “giveaways to big corporations” — a reference to her call to restore an expired program used to lure large-scale business expansions with tax incentives.
“I am hopeful the governor will stop focusing on politics and her power struggle, and start focusing on the Michigan families who need help,” he said.
Whitmer said she was eager to find some common ground with the Legislature, saying vaccine funding is critical. She has said she will not cede her administration’s authority because it needs the ability to “be nimble and quick when lives are on the line.”
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