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Whitmer: Local governments won’t lose money for keeping COVID-19 orders

File photo. State of Michigan

Governor Gretchen Whitmer tried to stop speculation Thursday that local governments and state universities risk losing funding if they have COVID-19 vaccine or mask mandates.

Republicans put language to that effect in the state budget the governor signed this week.

The governor did not veto the language, but she also said it’s not enforceable.

Because of the language in the new budget, some counties have rescinded their COVID-19 mask orders out of fear of losing state funding.

That’s despite the fact that Whitmer issued a letter when she signed the budget declaring that language is not enforceable. The same is true, she said, for fiscal sanctions against state universities -- because they have autonomy under the Michigan Constitution.

But that’s not a veto. The language itself is still in the law. So there’s been confusion and uncertainty over the force behind Whitmer’s letter and whether schools and counties will get their money if they have COVID-19 health orders in place.

Gillian Conrad is with the Berrien County Health Department, which has withdrawn its mask order.

“Our legal counselors had advised us that Governor Whitmer’s statement would not hold up in a court of law,” Conrad said. “The language that was thrown into the budget bill throws chaos out into the field again and we’re stuck with that consequence.”

Conrad said she’d be more comfortable if there was a court decision upholding Whitmer’s position, or a formal opinion from Attorney General Dana Nessel to reassure local governments they won’t be punished if they stick with their health orders. But, as of right now, every county is making its own decision and hoping for the best.

Peter Spadafore is with the Michigan Association of School Superintendents.

“There’s a little confusion out there because the language is in the law, but it does mean we’re on stable ground. The governor and her team have conveyed to us several times that we are not at risk, if we continue to follow local health department advice and orders, of losing our funding, and that’s good,” he said.

For her part, Governor Whitmer said there’s no ambiguity.

“You’ve read the letter. You’ve quoted the letter. The letter speaks for itself. There’s not much more to add there. We recognize that, we’ve consistently said I’m not going to let anyone get in the way of locals making determinations to keep people safe,” Whitmer said.

And even though Whitmer and Republicans in the Legislature have fought over her use of emergency authority to combat COVID, GOP leaders appear to have accepted the governor’s action.

Representative Tom Albert chairs the House Appropriations Committee. He said this fight is over – for this fiscal year.

“The bill has been signed and we’re moving on. This issue’s not going away, so is there going to be more opportunities in the future to try and address this issue and still have further local control? Absolutely, I think, but for now, the budget is done.”

Albert said he’s turning his attention now to bargaining with the governor over how to use six billion dollars remaining in federal COVID-19 assistance. And he said the question of restrictions on state and local health orders can be re-visited then.

Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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