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Lawmakers OK virus spending bills

LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Michigan legislators on Thursday approved mid-year spending bills, including billions in federal coronavirus relief to boost pay for frontline government workers, incentivize unemployed people to return to work and upgrade infrastructure.

Under a $3.3 billion plan sent to the Senate by the Republican-led House on a 65-42 vote, some of the U.S. funding would go toward payroll costs and free up state dollars to pay the state’s Flint water crisis settlement — instead of borrowing — and partially replenish an unemployment benefits fund targeted by fraudsters. Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration questioned some elements, saying federal guidance clearly states that COVID-19 funds cannot be used to pay down debt, bolster reserves and finance legal settlements.

“The House bill is very concerning,” state budget director Dave Massaron said. “The federal government released guidance earlier this week. It directly contradicts and prohibits many of the proposed expenditures of (American Rescue Plan) funds that the House is proposing in their fiscal year ’22 budget and in the supplemental.”

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Thomas Albert, a Lowell Republican, said the House plan moves the process forward.

“Democrats have complained we’re moving too quickly and too slowly at the same time,” he said in a statement. “Federal rules generally have allowed flexibility to offset funds — this new guidance just came out and we’re reviewing it like everybody else is.”

The House tied state spending on road debt and federally funded hazard pay to a bill, approved 58-49 on party lines, that would limit the governor’s power to shift money within departments via the State Administrative Board, which she did during a 2019 budget impasse. House Republicans earlier this week linked federal child care funding to the measure.

House Minority Leader Donna Lasinski, a Democrat from Washtenaw County’s Scio Township, said it was “cruel and shameful” for the GOP to again try to tie pandemic relief to curtailing the governor’s powers. Republican Rep. Ben Frederick of Owosso countered that his bill would give the executive branch a reasonable amount of flexibility — allowing it to increase or decrease a line item by $200,000 in the aggregate — while “closing the door to wholesale policy making on the part of the Administrative Board.”

The GOP-controlled Senate, meanwhile, unanimously shipped the House a $445 million supplemental budget bill that would allocate federal emergency rental assistance and other aid that Congress and then-President Donald Trump enacted in December.

A deal among the House, Senate and governor remains a ways off. Both chambers this week also approved spending plans for the next fiscal year, which all sides would like to finalize in June.

Included in the House’s mid-year spending measure is $225 million — nearly all of it federal — to expand mental health services, primarily for children. Funding would establish crisis stabilization units and pediatric residential treatment facilities, add long-term pediatric psychiatric beds and build a new psychiatric hospital for children and adolescents.

Rep. Mary Whiteford, a Republican from Allegan County’s Casco Township, called it “one of the most impactful investments in children’s behavioral health in the history of Michigan. … The earlier that we intervene and help those little brains to heal, the greater the success a child has to develop the tools to survive and to thrive in our world.”

Also Thursday, Senate Republicans passed a bill over Democrats’ objections that would prevent state and local health officials from ordering kids under age 5 to wear a mask. The state health department’s pandemic order currently exempts those younger than 2 from a face covering requirement.

The legislation, which Whitmer is unlikely to sign, was sent to the House for consideration.

Sen. Curt VanderWall, a Ludington Republican, called a mid-April order that extended a mask rule to children ages 2 to 4 in day care facilities and camps “silly” and difficult to implement. He said the governor should be loosening restrictions, not tightening them, as more Michiganders are vaccinated or are immune due to infections. The order was issued around the time case rates and hospitalizations peaked in Michigan’s third surge. They have since subsided.

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