Whitmer proposes $61.9B budget with boost in school funding

Michigan

LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Thursday proposed a $61.9 billion state budget, including the biggest increase in K-12 classroom spending in nearly 20 years and funding aimed at combating pregnancy-related deaths and the effects of climate change.

The Democrat’s plan would boost overall spending by 3.9% in the next fiscal year, without a tax hike. It includes a general fund of $11 billion and a school fund of nearly $16 billion.

“Improving education and skills training, protecting and expanding health care for families, and cleaning up our drinking water and fighting climate change,” Whitmer listed her spending priorities during a roundtable after budget director Chris Kolb presented the proposal to the Republican-led Legislature.

The 4.1% increase for school operations, excluding retirement and other costs, would be the largest on a percentage basis in 19 years, according to the state budget office.

Most traditional and charter schools would see their base per-student funding rise by $225, or nearly 2.8%, while better-funded districts would get $150 more, or roughly 1.8%. Separate pools of funding for special education, at-risk and English language learners would also grow, by $143 million.

“This is evidence-based. We know that when we prioritize our spending this way that we really are ensuring we’re leveling the playing field for kids so we can have level outcomes,” Whitmer told reporters.

ROADS NOT THE LINCHPIN

Unlike last year, her first as governor, Whitmer did not make a major fuel tax increase the linchpin of her proposal after last week announcing that the state will borrow $3.5 billion to fix state-owned roads and bridges. Last year, her proposed gas tax soured budget negotiations.

“I want to be clear,” Whitmer said, “we are facing serious long-term challenges and this is not the end of the story. If we enacted this today, it doesn’t mean that we will have achieved all of the goals that we have.”

Without new, dedicated transportation revenue, she also abandoned her attempt to stop automatically shifting income tax revenue to roadwork as required under a 2015 law. The money had previously gone to the general fund.

“I don’t tilt at windmills. I am realistic,” Whitmer said. “I put a solution on the table last year. I’m moving forward and I’m delivering on a lot of these fundamentals that I think are important for Michigan that I ran on and I know the people of Michigan care about.”

Key initiatives include better funding the state’s preschool program with a $35.5 million increase and creating a new $42 million program to expand state-funded preschool services to 5,000 4-year-olds. To qualify, they must live in one of 26 districts with high numbers of low-income students and third-graders who score low in reading.

Whitmer proposed giving districts $25 million in funding so that each teacher has $250 to spend on classroom supplies and awarding $40 million in grants to help districts make infrastructure improvements.

Her plan includes giving $40 million in grants to help communities confront record-high water levels in the Great Lakes and other severe weather events that have caused problems, such as flooding and coastline erosion.

To address infant and mother mortality rates that are higher among African Americans, Whitmer proposed spending $37.5 million to extend the Medicaid eligibility period for new mothers, increase access to family planning services and boost in-home visits to at-risk families. She also proposed making 5,900 more families eligible for child care assistance and announced a plan to provide state employees with up to 12 weeks of paid parental leave for a birth or adoption.

She again sought funding for her proposed Reconnect program to provide tuition-free community college or technical training to nontraditional students age 25 and older who do not have an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. It is backed by the business lobby but was not enacted last year.

She did not include funding for a separate Opportunity Scholarship — initially proposed last year — that she had hoped to provide to graduating high school students in the class of 2020 and beyond. She also did not propose restoring tax breaks for retirees by raising taxes on some businesses, as she did last year in her budget blueprint, but said she hopes lawmakers still consider Democratic-sponsored legislation to repeal the tax on retirement income.

Universities and community colleges would see a modest 2.5% increase in operations aid. Revenue-sharing payments to local governments would rise by between 2% and 2.5%.

Whitmer proposed $15 million for Pure Michigan, the state’s advertising and marketing campaign that had $36 million in state funding in the last budget year. It has no funding this fiscal year, after Whitmer vetoed it amid an impasse over road funding.

“I am still hopeful that we can remedy that with restricted funds,” she said.

Kolb asked the tourism industry to contribute additional money to Pure Michigan, echoing past comments from Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, a Republican.

The Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association said it was “willing and ready” to be part of a potential solution going forward but that it believes funding should be restored in the current budget.

BUDGETING PROCESS

After the breakdown on the budget last year, the governor and the Legislature agreed to new guidelines in budgeting. The most notable may be the new timeline that says the Legislature has to have a budget to the governor by July 1. That means lawmakers will have 145 days to hammer out the differences between what the governor wants and their priorities.

“There are some areas where we will have to improve upon her agenda, where she continued to pick winners and losers with schoolchildren and rural Michigan families,” said Republican House Speaker Lee Chatfield. “But there are also many areas where we all agree and can work together to get things done for the people we serve, including fixing our crumbling roads and the help for shoreline erosion we requested.”

For the Democrats’ top appropriator in the Senate, Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr. of East Lansing, the governor’s budget struck the right tone.

“I think if you look at it in total, (there are) big major investments and good policy areas that I think are important to the people of Michigan,” he said.

Republicans were willing to look at the plan, though they admitted last year’s budget conflict has caused some bad blood.

“There’s a trust factor here that we need to broach and figure out if this is going to work or not,” Rep. Mark Huizenga, R-Walker, said. “Obviously we constitutionally have to have a budget put together. This is a new year. We have to it done by July 1 this year. We’ll continue to work hard, but like the governor said the other day: trust but verify.”

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