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Bitter partisan divide over unemployment benefits extension after Whitmer signs relief bill

gretchen whitmer sitting at table

Governor Gretchen Whitmer has signed a COVID-19 relief bill. But there's a bitter partisan split over what one of the governor’s line-item vetoes means for unemployment insurance benefits in the state.

The more than $100 million in relief includes $55 million dollars for small businesses and $45 million in direct payments to workers who are laid off because of the coronavirus in addition to $3.5 million in grants to live music and entertainment venues.

The contention is over the governor’s largest line-item veto: $220 million that Republicans wanted deposited from the state’s general fund into the state’s Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund—which is ordinarily funded by taxes on employers.

In the Tuesday press conference Whitmer maintained the deposit was a tax-break for big businesses and her veto did not jeopardize the six-week extension of unemployment benefits from 20 to 26 weeks.

“It does not jeopardize a single effort or resource that is dedicated to helping our unemployed and anyone who tells you that is just not being honest about what that really was all about,” said Whitmer.

Republicans were quick to issue releases and statements indicting Whitmer for allegedly vetoing the extension of unemployment benefits—which they say was tie-barred to the $220 million deposit.

In a statement on Twitter Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, said, “Unemployment cannot be extended without these funds,” saying Republicans were “dismayed by her decision to leave families without the assistance they desperately need.”

Incoming House Speaker Jason Wentworth, R-Farwell, called the veto “an incredible and shocking mistake.”

A spokeswoman for Whitmer later released a statement saying “The governor’s line-item veto to save $220M in General Fund taxpayer dollars in the employer-owned Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund has no effect on current unemployed workers or their benefit weeks.”

Adding, “We’re hopeful the State Legislature will quickly take action next year to permanently extend unemployment benefits from 20 to 26 weeks for newly unemployed workers who file Jan 1 forward, putting Michigan in line with 40 other states.”

Whitmer argued the money from the General Fund will be needed to aid the state’s vaccine rollout and ability to stop the spread of the coronavirus pandemic in the state.

“What happened in that supplemental doesn’t have anything to do with solving the public health crisis and helping people who are struggling right now. And that’s why it was not a wise use of precious little general fund money that we need to build out our apparatus for vaccine administration,” said Whitmer. The governor also vetoed boilerplate language that would've allowed for the transport of hazardous waste over the Ambassador Bridge between Detroit and Windsor. 

Tuesday, the state’s chief medical executive said she is, “cautiously optimistic” saying “the end of this pandemic is near.”

Dr. Joneigh Khaldun was among the 71,000 people who have now received a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine in Michigan.

Khaldun said the number of COVID-19 cases per million people in the state of Michigan has been declining for 38 days. Yet, that's almost four times the rate of cases per million people that the state had back in September.

“While Michiganders are doing a great job bringing our cases down, that progress is fragile. We are still identifying many cases across the state every day,” said Khaldun. She noted the regions of Saginaw and Jackson still had case rates above 10 percent.

This week residents of long-term care facilities will begin to be vaccinated.

Abigail Censky is the Politics & Government reporter at WKAR. She started in December 2018.
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