Whitmer: Local Governments Won’t Lose Money For Keeping COVID Orders

Oct 1, 2021

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer
Credit Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy / flickr.com

Governor Gretchen Whitmer on Thursday tried to stop speculation 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. Rick Pluta explains. 

Governor Gretchen Whitmer tried to tamp down speculation 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.

And, because of the language in the new budget, several counties have rescinded their COVID-19 mask orders out of fear of losing state funding.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 Wednesday 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 statement is not a veto. The language itself is still in the law, even if the governor says it’s null and void. So there’s 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, and someone decides to challenge that.

Gillian Conrad is with the Berrien County Health Department, which has withdrawn its mask order. Conrad says it’s not the choice she wanted make.

“Our legal counselors had advised us that Governor Whitmer’s statement would not hold up in a court of law,” she told Michigan Radio’s Stateside.

Conrad said Berrien County health officials would 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. 

“The language that was thrown into budget bill throws chaos out into the field again and we’re stuck with that consequence, said Peter Spadafore with the Michigan Association of School Superintendents. He also says the situation is uncertain, but the governor’s statement is reassuring.  

There’s a little confusion out there because the language is in the law, but it does mean we’re on stable ground,” he said. “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.” 

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

“The letter speaks for itself. There’s not much more to add there,” she said. “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 governments and that’s the case.”

When asked again if that means local governments would not lose state money for sticking with COVID orders, Whitmer said: “Correct.”

And even though Whitmer and Republicans in the Legislature have fought over her use of emergency authority to combat COVID-19, GOP leaders appear to have accepted the governor’s action. 

“The bill has been signed and we’re moving on,” said Representative Tom Albert (R-Lowell), who chairs the House Appropriations Committee. He says this fight is over – for now. 

“This 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,” he said. “But for now, the budget is done.”

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

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— Rick Pluta is the Managing Editor and Reporter for the Michigan Public Radio network.  Contact WEMU News at 734.487.3363 or email us at studio@wemu.org