Heard on Detroit Today with Stephen Henderson

Mackinac Policy Conference 2021: Whitmer Says She’ll Sign Budget Deal But Criticizes Lawmakers Over Unspent Billions

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Image credit: Matt Trevethan/WDET

Whitmer says the $5 billion-plus that the GOP-led Legislature has left unspent could go a long way toward fixing areas of the state that have suffered from decades of underinvestment and disinvestment. She also defends her pandemic approach.

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Gov. Gretchen Whitmer says she will sign the budget deal moving through the state Legislature, calling it “a great step.” It’s the result of months of negotiations between Whitmer’s office and the Republican-led state House and Senate. 

The 10 million people of Michigan elected a divided government, not a dysfunctional one.” —Gov. Gretchen Whitmer

But Whitmer says she’s not happy that lawmakers have left about $5 billion or more unspent this year. She says that money could go a long way toward fixing areas of the state that have suffered from decades of underinvestment and disinvestment.

Listen: Gov. Whitmer discusses the new state budget, her pandemic approach and more.

I can’t explain it,” she tells Stephen Henderson on Detroit Today from the 2021 Mackinac Policy Conference. “I’ve been trying to get the Legislature to spend these dollars and focus on things like affordable housing and skills training. I think we’ve got an incredible opportunity and we cannot falter here.”

This budget is a great step,” she continues. ”We’ve collaborated, it is bipartisan, it does a lot of things in terms of growing the economy, investing in small business, investing in communities. But the fact of the matter is, we have more we can do. And the 10 million people of Michigan elected a divided government, not a dysfunctional one.”

The governor also addresses her approach to managing the pandemic and how it has changed since last year. Whitmer says she is no longer interested in issuing sweeping mandates and health orders, and is instead leaving those tough decisions up to local health departments, school districts, businesses and individuals.

We have tools now that we didn’t have at the beginning of this crisis,” she says. ”And so we’ve worked really hard to make sure people have access to vaccines. We’ve gotten over 65% of our population vaccinated. It is easy, it is free, and they are effective. Anyone can avail themselves of these tools now. And that’s the real difference here. It’s important that masking decisions be made at the local level. It increases the likelihood of compliance when people have the opportunity to have some say in that. And that’s why you know this, where we are in terms of our philosophy of of how we move forward, and that’s really what’s been driving it.”

Michigan Chief Medical Executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, Whitmer’s top health adviser, said this summer that she advised the governor that issuing a statewide mask mandate for schools would help slow the spread of the virus. The governor did not take that advice. 

We’ve all agreed that mask mandates are important, especially when you’re talking about population that is not eligible for vaccines yet,” says Whitmer. ”The best thing we can do to keep our kids in class is make sure that they’re all wearing masks, and that all the adults around them or people 12 and up around them are vaccinated. We are on the same page on that front. And that’s why we have been really encouraging districts, strongly recommending that they embrace these policies. But like I said, coming at the local level is inherently more conducive to compliance and input from the community.”

When asked if she would consider a statewide mask mandate for schools or other more aggressive measures if COVID-19 begins spreading quickly in schools and districts are forces to cancel in-person instruction and more kids get sick, Whitmer indicates that those kinds of responses are not off the table, but that they are not being considered at this time.

Right now, we’re not considering broad epidemic orders like that. But certainly, those powers still exist. And if there are circumstances that would merit using them, that’s something that we will take a look at at the appropriate time,” she says.

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