Pandemic Power Play: GOP Tries To Block Whitmer From Using COVID Aid

State Republicans plan on using only part of the federal aid package, diverting that money to "property tax relief."
DETROIT, MI - AUGUST 8: Gretchen Whitmer, Michigan democratic gubernatorial nominee, speaks with reporters after a Democrat Unity Rally at the Westin Book Cadillac Hotel August 7th, 2018 in Detroit, Michigan. Whitmer will face off against republican gubernatoral nominee Bill Schuette in November. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)
DETROIT, MI - AUGUST 8: Gretchen Whitmer, Michigan Democratic gubernatorial nominee, speaks with reporters after a Democrat Unity Rally at the Westin Book Cadillac Hotel August 8, 2018 in Detroit, Michigan. Whitmer w... DETROIT, MI - AUGUST 8: Gretchen Whitmer, Michigan Democratic gubernatorial nominee, speaks with reporters after a Democrat Unity Rally at the Westin Book Cadillac Hotel August 8, 2018 in Detroit, Michigan. Whitmer will face off against Republican gubernatorial nominee Bill Schuette in November. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images) MORE LESS
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March 5, 2021 4:46 p.m.
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The Michigan state GOP is attempting to take a hostage in its bid to strip Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) of her pandemic authorities: billions of dollars in aid money from former president Trump.

The GOP-controlled state legislature has passed a bill that would leave $1.2 billion in federal funds directed for the state’s COVID-19 response unspent, while tying spending what money has been approved to limits on the state governor’s authority to issue public health orders to combat the pandemic.

It’s a somewhat far-fetched power play that, without a veto-proof majority in support, would require Gov. Whitmer to agree to give away essential powers of her office.

“They have not negotiated with us, which means that I’ve not signed off on any of the terms in it,” Whitmer told reporters this week.

The federal government directed $5.4 billion to the state of Michigan in December, after Trump signed a $900 billion aid package that included money for vaccine distribution, COVID-19 testing, and food assistance.

But within Michigan itself, that money — approved by a Republican president who remains the de facto leader of the GOP — has slammed into members of the state legislature from the same party.

In legislation passed this week that is currently making its way to Whitmer’s desk, GOP state lawmakers tied $347 in COVID-19 testing funds to a proposal that would require state legislative approval of public health orders from Michigan’s Department of Health and Human Services.

The state GOP can’t force Whitmer’s hand should she veto the legislation. They can, however, continue to let the money sit without being allocated, hobbling the state’s recovery.

That’s the dilemma for state Democrats: agree to limited spending with a poison pill, or call the GOP’s bluff on whether it will really go so far as to refuse to allocate billions provided to it under a president of the same party.

“We want to make sure that she continues to engage with us,” State Sen. Tom Barrett (R) told local media. State Sen. Ed McBroom (R) described it as an attempt to push back on a governor who had made them feel “emasculated.”

House Minority Leader Donna Lasinski (D) described it in an interview with TPM as an attempt to “kneecap” the governor’s COVID-19 response, saying that non-budget items like attempts to limit Whitmer’s pandemic powers were kept away from spending bills for a reason.

“This could be done with every dollar of appropriations bills,” she told TPM.

The result is a bizarre impasse in which Republicans have presented Whitmer with a deal she cannot accept: leaving more than $1 billion in federal dollars unspent, while also demanding that she agree to give up powers used over the past year to curb the spread of COVID-19 and transfer them to local governments around the state. The bill also includes various GOP sweeteners like $350 million in “relief” from property taxes.

Peter Wielhouwer, director of the institute for government and politics at Western Michigan University, described it to TPM as a “game of chicken.”

“They are really trying to use the power of the state legislature to devolve the authority for a lot of these decisions to the local level as opposed to centralizing it,” Wielhouwer said. “So it’s not an unusual Republican mindset with regard to who ought to be controlling these things.”

The move comes as other GOP-controlled state legislatures try to claw back authority from governor’s offices. In Idaho, GOP lawmakers have fought tooth and nail against a Republican governor to rescind the state’s COVID-19 emergency declaration. In Kansas, state legislators plan on using further federal stimulus dollars to cover the shortfall created by massive tax cuts.

Wielhouwer added that Republican lawmakers had never shown any real desire to work with the governor. Lasinski, the state house minority leader, described it as an “opening salvo” in fights as the Biden administration funnels more cash to the states.

“It’s very important that this is either allowed to go forward or it’s not,” she said. “This cannot become the accepted state of business.”

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