Budget-weary lawmakers shift focus to non-budget issues

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LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the Legislature’s top leaders met for the first time in a month Thursday but focused very little of their discussion on the messy state budget process, instead talking about criminal justice legislation.

The meeting was held in the wake of the Democratic governor’s signing a largely Republican-written budget and vetoing an unprecedented $947 million in proposed spending. The GOP-led Legislature had sent her the plan days before the deadline following a breakdown in talks over shifting discretionary funds to repair roads and bridges.

Whitmer wants lawmakers to pass a supplemental budget bill that includes her priorities and could potentially restore items she vetoed.

“It was not the primary focus of the meeting. I think it was just to get back on track again,” said Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, a Flint Democrat.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, a Clarklake Republican, had said this week that he was in no rush to revisit the budget and wanted to discuss legislation related to raising Michigan’s age to treat criminal defendants as adults to 18 and overhauling the expungement process.

“It was an overall very positive meeting,” said Amber McCann, Shirkey’s spokeswoman.

McCann said the Senate GOP caucus is disappointed with Whitmer’s line-item vetoes and “probably not eager to join her on any new items in the near future.”

The vetoes affect funding for roads, hospitals, counties, need-based college scholarships, tourism advertising, charter schools and other parts of the budget.

Whitmer said this week that she was aware that Republicans might not agree to restore what she vetoed.

“If they choose to do that, then it’s going to be on them. The consequences of it will be real, will be serious,” she said, adding that the GOP attempted to shift general funds from “critical” government functions to the transportation budget for a “talking-point road plan.”

She has unsuccessfully pushed for a 45-cents-a-gallon fuel tax increase to permanently boost spending on crumbling roads.

GOP leaders have said they proceeded to pass the budget after Whitmer “walked away” from talks. She has said Republicans violated an agreement to table road-funding discussions until after the budget when they made “ultimatums” and pushed to spend $500 million in general funds on roads.

Despite the impasse, top legislators were hopeful about the prospects of advancing non-budget bills to Whitmer’s desk.

In April, both the House and Senate voted to no longer automatically treat 17-year-old criminal defendants as adults. But legislators must resolve differences over how to ensure that the state fully funds an additional $17 million to $47 million in annual juvenile justice costs for counties.

In 45 states, the maximum age of juvenile court jurisdiction is 17, while Missouri’s law increasing the age to 17 will take effect in 2021. Michigan, Texas, Georgia and Wisconsin draw the line at age 16, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Another criminal justice-related focus is on expanding expungement, including for low-level marijuana offenders in the wake of the state’s legalization of the drug for recreational use.

“What we’re trying to do is bipartisan work on some policy issues first and see if we can get some agreement on those and kind of recalibrate and get to a place where we can get back to the daily functions getting done,” Ananich said. “That supplemental can go at anytime or not go depending on what the majority decides to do.”

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