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Differences remain as Whitmer, GOP lawmakers work on budget

FILE - In this June 26, 2019 file photo, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks about new lead testing rules for drinking water at the Romney Building in Lansing, Mich. Whitmer and Republican legislative leaders announced Monday, Sept. 9 that they will work to enact a state budget without including a long-term funding plan to fix Michigan’s deteriorating roads. The agreement should forestall the possibility of an Oct. 1 partial government shutdown. But it also strips the first-year governor of leverage as she seeks a nearly $2 billion influx of new spending on road and bridge construction in a state that ranks second to last nationally in per-capita road spending. (AP Photo/David Eggert, File)

LANSING — The tabling of talks on a multibillion-dollar plan to improve Michigan’s roads clears the way for passage of the next state budget.

But first, Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the Republican-led Legislature have three weeks to resolve several differences on spending — including state aid to K-12 schools, universities and whether to fund her proposed scholarship program for older college students.

The way Whitmer structured her first budget — the linchpin was a 45-cents-a-gallon fuel tax increase to both fix the roads and free up money for education — will make it tough for her spend as much on other priorities as she initially proposed.

“Not solving the road problem makes that more difficult,” said Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr. of East Lansing, the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee.

“Roads are really important, but so is education and all those other issues that happen in the budget.”

What to watch for as the governor and lawmakers work to meet an Oct. 1 deadline:

K-12 SCHOOLS

Other than addressing aging roads in the long term — which has been shelved for now — Whitmer has no bigger priority than significantly boosting funding for a K-12 system she says is in “crisis” due to lagging student performance. Her proposal would pump $523 million, or 4%, more into the school budget, not including federal dollars. Funding would rise between nearly $200 million and $392 million under House and Senate proposals, or 1.3% and 3%.

Whitmer’s net increases would be higher in the vast majority of districts, both big and small.

But GOP lawmakers have not embraced Whitmer’s proposal to begin a new “weighted” formula to account for extra costs to educate certain students. They instead favor a larger bump in ongoing base aid but smaller increases for special education, at-risk, and career and technical spending.

“I’ve always been a strong proponent of continuing to work on per-pupil funding and reducing that gap” between higher- and lower-funded districts, said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Stamas, R-Midland.

School groups are disappointed and frustrated.

They saw Whitmer’s bid to link $2.5 billion in road funding to the budget as a once-in-a-generation chance to reverse the decade-long trend of diverting school aid funds to higher education. Whitmer says the yearly shifts occurred to shore up general funds that increasingly have been going to an under-funded transportation budget.

She proposed boosting early literacy initiatives, including tripling literacy coaches, and an expansion of the Great Start Readiness Program so more 4-year-olds could attend preschool.

FREE TUITION

Whitmer wants to provide tuition-free community college or technical training for an estimated 51,000 nontraditional students age 25 and older without an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. The Reconnect program would cost $110 million over two years and cover tuition or mandatory fees not already offset by need-based federal Pell Grants or the state’s tuition program for Medicaid recipients.

Republicans did not include the funding in bills they passed in the spring, but it is expected to be a point of discussion. House Appropriations Committee Chairman Shane Hernandez, a Port Huron Republican, said Tuesday that “it’s something we’re willing to talk about.”

Whitmer’s separate Opportunity Scholarship initiative for new high school graduates would not take effect until the 2020-21 fiscal year and is not part of current budget negotiations.

COLLEGE FUNDING

Whitmer proposed a 3% increase in state aid for 15 universities, more than bumps ranging between 0.4% and 1% in the Legislature. Whitmer said Monday her proposal would not fully reverse years of spending less on higher education, but “it does take a big step forward.”

DRINKING WATER

Whitmer has a $180 million plan to boost the quality of tap water across Michigan, from replacing lead pipes and school drinking fountains to combating chemicals that are contaminating public supplies and private wells. She initially included it in a supplemental request for the current budget. Legislators approved $5 million then, but she may keep pushing her initiative in broader budget talks.

ROADS

Whitmer and legislators must still decide how much to put into the transportation budget for the coming fiscal year. Democrats appear likely to oppose any GOP effort to set aside additional general funds beyond what is called for under 2015 road-funding laws, preferring to focus on a long-term solution. “Michigan people deserve an answer on this. We can’t keep kicking the can down the road,” Hertel said.