LANSING, Mich. (WOOD) — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Tuesday signed a COVID-19 relief bill but line-item vetoed spending that she said favored special interests rather than helping people hurt by the pandemic and associated business closures, though lawmakers say the cash was required to extend unemployment benefits.
The Legislature had approved a $465 million bill; Whitmer approved $106 million of that spending. The part she OK’d included $55 million for grants to small businesses, $3.5 million for grants to entertainment venues and $45 million in payments to people who were laid off or furloughed because of virus closures.
The governor also signed a separate bill that extends unemployment benefits for those who lost their jobs because of the pandemic from 20 weeks to 26 weeks through the end of March. She called on the Legislature to make that extension permanent. She said that it should be a top priority when lawmakers return to Lansing and that it “should not be used as any sport of a bargaining chip or tied to other priorities that the Legislature might have outside of public health and our economy.”
The portion of the relief bill that she vetoed included a $220 million deposit to the Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund, which businesses pay into to fund benefits to laid off workers. She argued that money should be going to distributing vaccines and paying for personal protective equipment, “not give tax breaks to big businesses.”
“(The $220 million) doesn’t immediately go to the needs of anybody right now, which i s a big part of the problem,” Whitmer said at a Tuesday morning press conference in Lansing. “What happened in that supplemental doesn’t have anything to do with solving the public health crisis and helping people who are struggling right now, and that’s why it was not a wise use of precious little general fund money that we need to built our or apparatus for vaccine administration.”
In a letter to the Republican-led Legislature, the Democratic governor said the trust fund deposit “strayed from (the) principle” of providing relief to small businesses and families.
“It was incumbent upon all of us to avoid the temptation to spend limited dollars on anything outside of our basic public health needs and an economic stimulus,” Whitmer wrote. “Unfortunately, the Legislature decided at the eleventh hour to scrap our collaborative process and included a number of projects that we don’t have the revenue for at this time, along with favors for special interests.”
She stressed during the press conference that her veto “will not prevent any unemployed Michigander from getting their benefits, I want to be very clear about that.”
However, Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, said in a tweet shortly after the press conference that “unemployment cannot be extended without these funds.”
“Gov. Whitmer vetoed hundreds of millions of dollars in unemployment benefits at a time when Michiganders need it most. That money would have gone directly into the pockets of workers, many who are unemployed as a result of the governor’s shutdowns. Unemployment benefits cannot be extended without those funds.
“Those dollars would have extended unemployment benefits without placing additional costs on Michigan businesses already struggling to stay afloat under Gov. Whitmer’s closure polices.
“The bill was passed with votes from Republicans and Democrats in the legislature who understand Michigan families are struggling and in need of our support. Gov. Whitmer eliminated that support today with her veto pen and dealt another blow to Michiganders just struggling to get by.”Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake
Small Business Association of Michigan President Brian Calley, also a former Republican lieutenant governor, said in a statement to News 8 that it was his understanding that state unemployment law required an appropriation of $220 million to the trust fund in order to extend benefits from 20 to 26 weeks.
“It is not only a budget boilerplate issue. Therefore, I believe that the line item veto of the appropriation has also rendered the unemployment extension invalid,” his statement read in part. “This could have implications for the federal benefit as well, although it will take a while to sort that out.”
LATEST CORONAVIRUS DATA
On Tuesday, Michigan announced 3,414 more cases of the virus had been confirmed and 193 more deaths linked to it. Of those 193 deaths, 105 were discovered in a review of death certificates to find any that had not already been reported to the state.
In all, Michigan has now had 483,922 confirmed cases of the virus since it was first discovered in the state in March and recorded 12,282 related deaths.
On Monday, labs in Michigan tested 21,007 samples for the virus and 1,892 came back positive, a rate of 9.01%. The number of positive tests is not the same as the number of new cases because people may be tested more than once. Additionally, testing numbers are from a single calendar date, while the number of new cases lists the increase since the last time the state compiled the data; these two time frames do not match up precisely.
Kent County confirmed another 205 cases of the virus, bringing its total to 40,643 in the about last 10 months, and recorded nine more deaths for a total of 503.
Several other counties in West Michigan also recorded additional deaths:
- Allegan County: Four more deaths for 52 total; 5,211 total confirmed cases since the start of the outbreak.
- Berrien County: Nine more deaths for 174 total; 8,590 total cases.
- Branch County: Two more deaths for 64 total; 2,784 total cases.
- Calhoun County: Five more deaths for 176 total; 6,820 total cases.
- Ionia County: One more death for 42 total; 3,288 total cases.
- Kalamazoo County: Six more deaths for 214 total; 10,673 total cases.
- Montcalm County: Two more deaths for 64 total; 2,753 total cases.
- Muskegon County: Seven more deaths for 255 total; 9,117 total cases.
- Newaygo County: One more death for 31 total; 2,144 total cases.
- Ottawa County: Six more deaths for 244 total; 17,342 total cases.
- St. Joseph County: One more death for 46 total; 3,205 total cases.
- Van Buren County: Two more deaths for 72 total; 3,806 total cases.
Wayne County, hit hardest by the virus, recorded 32 more deaths for a total of 3,424 and confirmed 521 more cases for a total of 79,316 since March. Neighboring Oakland County has had 53,612 cases (496 more than the previous day) and 1,559 deaths (22 more). Macomb County has had 47,078 cases (292 more) and 1,520 deaths (20 more).
Metrics that demonstrate the state of the pandemic are improving: The rate of new cases per million people per day has been on the decline for 38 days, though Dr. Joneigh Khaldun. the state’s chief medical executive, said it is still nearly four times higher than it was at the start of September.
Hospitalizations and the average rate of positive tests each day have been trending down all month.
The rate of deaths each day is also beginning to see a slight improvement: Last week, there were an average of 107 deaths per day versus 123 the week before.
“These numbers are encouraging,” Whitmer said Tuesday, but noted that officials would be keeping a close eye on the metrics in the coming days to see if Christmas travel will cause a spike.
The state avoided a surge in cases following Thanksgiving. Officials continue to urge people not to gather with anyone outside their household to celebrate the new year.
Under the latest Michigan Department of Health and Human Services order, movie theaters and other entertainment venues are allowed to reopen with capacity restrictions following a decline in coronavirus cases. Indoor restaurant dining has been barred under the order. Universities and colleges can let students return to campus next month, with a request to wait until Jan. 18 to being in-person classes.
The order lasts through Jan. 15, but Whitmer previously said she may lift some restrictions sooner “if we substantially sustain our progress.”
But Khaldun warned that “progress is fragile” and reminded people to keep practice social distancing and wearing masks around others to prevent outbreaks. Whitmer again called on the Legislature to pass a mask mandate, which she said would encourage compliance with an mandate in effect under an MDHHS epidemic order.
Khaldun also urged people to seek out coronavirus tests if they have symptoms or may have been exposed to the virus, citing a decline in the number of tests being run each day in the last week.
“This testing is so important and the only way we are going to know where this disease is so that we can stop it from spreading,” she said.
Khaldun and Whitmer also encouraged people to make a plan for getting the COVID-19 vaccine, which is right now available to only limited groups, including health care workers who have frequent contact with the virus and nursing home residents.
Nearly 71,000 people in Michigan have gotten their first dose of the vaccine. Khaldun, who works in a hospital, is among them. She said she had a sore arm the day after the shot but otherwise felt fine.
She said people worried about allergic reactions to the vaccine, which have been rare, should consult with their doctor.
“Overall, I am optimistic. The end of this pandemic is near. Vaccines are being distributed across the state and our case numbers are coming down. We know that masks work and many people across the state are wearing them,” Khaldun said. “And we know that Michiganders have what it takes to bring this curve down and keep it down.”