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GOP: No aid unless counties control school, sports closures

Michigan House Republicans on Wednesday proposed a $3.5 billion coronavirus recovery plan but threatened to withhold billions to K-12 schools unless Gov. Gretchen Whitmer cedes her administration’s power to prohibit in-person instruction and sports to local health departments.

Senate Republicans, meanwhile, rejected 13 of the Democratic governor’s nominees to state boards — lashing out over her continued unilateral issuing of COVID-19 restrictions.

The state health department in November ordered a temporary ban on face-to-face learning in high schools to help curb a surge in virus cases, lifting it later. A prohibition on youth contact sports remains, while restaurants can resume indoor dining next week at 25% capacity and with a 10 p.m. curfew following a decline in new infections and hospitalizations.

“Some Michigan school districts haven’t had in-person classes since March. That’s hurting kids in ways we can’t even imagine, and not just academically,” House Appropriations Committee Chairman Thomas Albert, a Lowell Republican, said in a statement. “The disruption of sports and other extracurricular activities also takes a major toll.”

By law, K-12 districts and charter schools decide whether to allow in-person classes. Although the Democratic governor has strongly urged schools to offer a face-to-face learning option by March 1, House Republicans want to entice public schools by offering up to $250 per student in funding if they commit to reopening by Feb. 15. Many teachers have not yet been vaccinated, which could slow the return to in-person instruction.

The House proposal came a week after Whitmer sent the Republican-controlled Legislature a $5.6 billion relief plan that would use recently enacted federal aid and state funds. She planned to highlight her proposal in her annual State of the State address Wednesday night.

The dueling plans have similarities, including another round of grants to help restaurants and other businesses devastated by the pandemic and related virus restrictions.

The governor proposes quickly allocating $90 million in federal aid designated for the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines. Albert instead wants an initial $22 million distributed, with the rest held in reserve until needed. The House GOP plan would not fund Whitmer’s proposed renewal of an expired tax incentives program that was used to lure large-scale business expansions.

Whitmer spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said the governor was pleased to see GOP lawmakers embrace elements of her recovery plan such as vaccine distribution, support for small businesses and getting kids back into classrooms, but added “this is not the time for partisan games.”

K-12 administrators said they appreciated Republicans’ recognition of additional costs facing schools due to pandemic, yet they criticized linking funding to a bid to let local officials, not the state, decide about school and sports restrictions.

“Federal dollars for learning should not be used as a bargaining chip,” said Tina Kerr, executive director of the Michigan Association of Superintendents & Administrators. “A bipartisan vote of Congress sent $1.6 billion in aid to Michigan schools, and district leaders need that money to be appropriated now — without caveat or consideration of politics.”

Across the Capitol, Senate Democrats decried Republicans’ decision to block gubernatorial appointees to commissions, boards and an agency. One nominee is Whitmer’s deputy legal counsel Suzanna Shkreli, who was poised to lead the Office of Children’s Ombudsman, which independently investigates complaints involving children who are under state oversight for reasons of abuse or neglect.

“It’s not our job to play petty games just for the sake of flexing on the governor, especially while she’s trying to get us through the tail end of a deadly pandemic with little to no help from you,” Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich of Flint told GOP senators who have opposed her call to codify a mask mandate in law.

But Republicans blamed Whitmer for job losses and accused her of not working with legislators after the state Supreme Court deemed a law that underpinned her emergency orders to be unconstitutional.

“We have this tool available to us,” Sen. Ken Horn of Frankenmuth said of disapproving nominees. “We will continue to use the tools that we have ... to demonstrate to the governor that we are partners in this. We are a co-equal branch.”