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Keep Michigan budget focused on recovery

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer laid out her priorities for 2022 spending as the state moves on from a year dominated by job losses and other economic disruptions caused by lockdowns. While the budget is buoyed by a one-time influx of federal COVID relief dollars, the state can’t use that windfall as an excuse to expand government programs for the long term.

That federal funding stream won’t last, yet taxpayer-funded programs tend to live on once begun or increased in scope.

The governor’s challenge lies in working with a GOP-controlled Legislature that has sought to rein in her executive powers after being largely sidelined for the past year.

Whitmer and legislative leaders need to talk to each other as lawmakers work on their budget offering; this will make final negotiations much more straightforward. For instance, the House recently passed its own $3.5 billion COVID relief package as a counter to the governor’s larger spending plan. Members in that chamber were miffed the governor had put out a spending plan without first consulting them.

Republicans will need to counter some of Whitmer’s new spending ambitions.

The governor’s budget includes “a significant amount of strategic one-time investments made possible by the increase in federal aid and the effective job Michigan has done in managing the pandemic.”

It’s true the state is in a better fiscal position than predicted last year, but officials need to stay focused on getting people back to work and kids back in school. That’s the best path to recovery.

Whitmer is recommending “one-time funding” of $192.4 million out of the general fund to boost the size of two programs aimed at getting more residents higher education degrees. The Michigan Reconnect program to help people complete associate degrees would receive $120 million — a quadrupling of current funding. And $60.4 million would be directed to the Futures for Frontliners program that gives emergency workers tuition-free access to a degree or certificate.

These programs, while well-intentioned, don’t yet have a proven track record and it’s not the right time to expand them to such a degree, particularly since they’ll require additional resources in future years.

Whitmer also devotes significant funding boosts to K-12 schools, thanks to federal aid. She is rightly focusing on addressing gaps in student achievement after months out of the classroom.

Yet her plan stops short of incentivizing schools to reopen to in-person learning.

Whitmer also erred in axing $30 million in foundation grant payments for cyber schools. These charter public schools have offered families a huge service during the pandemic and have seen enrollment spikes as parents sought a better learning environment for their children after neighborhood schools closed and were unprepared for the online transition.

“There will be common themes between the governor’s recommendation and our developing proposal — and there will also be sharp differences,” Rep. Thomas Albert, chair of the House Appropriations Committee, said in a statement. “We must remember that state tax revenues are declining sharply — our finances are propped up by artificial and temporary federal COVID relief. It’s not sustainable.”

Albert is right to be cautious. We hope the governor and lawmakers will be able to put their differences aside and iron out a budget that works for all Michiganians.

— Detroit News

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