The debate over the state's supplemental budget and billions of dollars in federal COVID relief funding is continuing in Lansing. The Republican-led House and Senate have passed their budget proposals. There are significant differences from Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s plan.
State House Speaker Jason Wentworth (R-Clare), joined Michigan Radio's Doug Tribou on Morning Edition to share his thoughts on the plan, and his work on ethics and transparecny reform in the state Legislature.
Doug Tribou: The Republican budget proposal ties the release of more than $840 million in federal K-12 school funding to the enactment of another bill that would take away the state health department's ability to shut down schools or sporting events. Instead, it would give that power to local health departments. Is it good government to tie coronavirus relief to stripping powers from the state in the midst of a global pandemic?
Jason Wentworth: You know, when we talk to parents and we talk to families across the state, the fact is the kids need to get back into the classrooms. And that's what our plan focuses on. And we're providing additional funding for districts committed to restore the in-person instruction. It's a big dollar equivalent to about $450 per student. It's been a challenging, obviously, time for our kids and our families. And we need to make sure these kids get back in the classroom. And that's what our plan does.
DT: But there is the component of the release of the funds contingent on that other element that I was mentioning. How do you see that playing out? Because it's not just holding it back to spend it later, but there's an actual trigger in the legislation.
JW: Right. And that's the point that I think is needed. Where parents want that consistency and to make sure that when we put their kids back in the classroom, and [state officials] decide to close schools, that should be the decision of local health departments. Not one person making that decision unilaterally for the entire state. Case counts are different across their state and that needs to be recognized.
DT: Turning to another budget line item, the Republican legislature's plan would provide $283 million in emergency rental assistance. However, U.S. Congress set aside $660 million for that here in Michigan. Housing advocates say people need the help now. Why hold that balance back?
JW: You're right. This is a big deal for families who need rental assistance. And that's exactly what we're doing, putting a big investment there, and ensuring that we're helping families and seniors and not just with rent, but utility assistance. And we're putting a big deposit into the unemployment benefits trust fund to help people that are laid off because of the COVID restrictions, so they can continue to receive their benefits. And we have a $600 million supplemental for the [Supplemental] Nutrition Assistance Program, the SNAP funding.
DT: But in the case of the rental assistance, it's less than half of the total amount. What is the longer term strategy for that [money], which the federal government assigned to Michigan with the thought that it was needed?
JW: Right. And that's the key, is that when we're looking at where the money needs to be, but when it needs to be spent, that's the job of the Legislature. And we believe that the governor has a track record of taking her veto pen and using the ad board in ways that don't represent our state. It's our job as the legislature to appropriate those dollars. And we will allocate those funds as we continue to spend these.
DT: We've just passed what was another mortgage payment or another rental payment for many Michiganders. Every day can be a problem for some of the people who have lost jobs or been affected by the pandemic financially. And every day that the budget process is slowed, has that trickle-down effect to the residents. Are you optimistic that something will get done and get done relatively quickly?
JW: I am. I'm hopeful that the governor puts the politics aside and signs this plan. We talk about the situation that people are in, families are and businesses are. You know, I wouldn't necessarily say it's a pandemic is the reason we're in this situation, as other states have done a better job with better results than Michigan. I want to be clear, it is our government's response to the pandemic that has created this situation for the people of Michigan.
DT: This week, it came to light that the state will pay former Michigan Department of Health and Human Services director Robert Gordon $155,000 in a separation agreement. That deal also keeps the reasons for his resignation in January confidential. That's fairly unusual in state government. What was your reaction to that news?
JW: I’m not necessarily a fan of someone resigning under unknown conditions, but then also receiving a severance package. It just doesn't pass the sniff test. Depending on the circumstances – I don't know the details, obviously, because no one does – but the governor needs to come clean and tell the people of Michigan what really happened.
DT: Well, you've said that transparency and ethics are a top priority for you in this term since you took over as speaker, and you organized ethics training sessions for Republicans in the House. Is this situation an argument for opening up the governor's office and the legislature to open-records laws and to maybe financial disclosures? And is that something that you would support?
JW: Yeah, I've been a proponent, like you said, of ethics and transparency for the last several years. You know, as legislators, we should be subject to LORA (The Legislative Open Records Act), and the governor's office, should be subject to FOIA. We should have those open records.
DT: And could you explain what LORA would do in this situation?
JW: Yeah, that is the Legislative Open Records Act. And so that would basically open the two branches of government, the Senate and the House. And the FOIA is a Freedom Information Act, which would open up the administration. My resolution to end [the legislature's] lame duck [period] – essentially requiring a two-thirds vote [to pass legislation] after the election – that's a step in the right direction. But we have many more steps that we need to take to start rebuilding and restoring trust in our government.
DT: There's a long history of the kinds of reforms that you're talking about being introduced and then eventually failing. Your counterpart in the Senate, Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake), has said he doesn't see a need for stronger ethics rules. What are the chances of passing significant change?
JW: As the speaker, having my name on the resolution to end lame duck, I think sends a strong message that, we are not looking just to send this out of the House. We want to get this to the governor's desk. I'm confident. Senator Shirkey and I are great partners, and I know that he's going to give it a fair shake in the Senate, and I'm looking forward to that.
Editor's note: Some quotations in this article have been edited for length and clarity. You can hear the full interview near the top of this page.