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Dec. 23 | This Week in Government: COVID Relief Supplemental Heads to the Governor; New State Budget Director Named

Each week, the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Government Relations team, in partnership with Gongwer, will provide members with a collection of timely updates from both local and state governments. Stay in the know on the latest legislation, policy priorities, and more.

  1. COVID Relief Supplemental Heads to Whitmer
  2. Whitmer Turns to Detroit Budget Director to Replace Kolb
  3. Corbin Praises Aid for Unemployment; Talks Managing Fraud
  4. Supplemental Would Allow HazMat Over Ambassador Bridge
  5. Whitmer Questions Reduction in Vaccine Doses; Feds Deny Claim

COVID Relief Supplemental Heads to Whitmer

A $465 million supplemental with funding for coronavirus relief for affected businesses and workers passed the House on Monday during a rare Christmas-week session day and will now go to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s desk for her signature.

The House concurred in the Senate substitute for SB 748 97-5. The bill includes $465.07 million in total spending, with $443.3 million from the General Fund and $21.7 million in federal dollars.

Gov. Whitmer praised the supplemental – after Friday’s Senate vote, her administration would only say it was reviewing the bill – and noted she asked for a stimulus plan from the Legislature last month. But she also said Congress needs to do more to help states, residents, and businesses weather the pandemic.

“I proposed this stimulus plan to the Legislature in November because I know how much our families, frontline workers, and small businesses need relief as we head into the winter. This bipartisan relief bill will provide families and businesses the support they need to stay afloat as we continue working to distribute the safe and effective vaccine and eradicate COVID-19 once and for all,” Gov. Whitmer said in a statement. “There is still more work to do to beat this virus and grow our economy. All Michiganders have a personal responsibility to do their part and mask up, practice safe social distancing, and avoid indoor gatherings where the virus can easily spread from person to person. And I urge everyone who is still doing last-minute holiday shopping to buy local to support your favorite businesses and restaurants.”

The largest appropriation in the bill is the $220 million to cover the temporary extension of unemployment benefits from 20 weeks to 26 weeks from Jan. 1, 2021, through April 1, 2021.

Another $55 million is for small business grants, targeting businesses most impacted by the pandemic. There’s also funding to provide grants of up to $1,650 to individuals employed in facilities affected by the gathering restrictions if they are currently furloughed or laid off or had hours reduced because of orders from the state.

Direct care workers would see the continuation of the $2 pay increase for an additional two months under the bill and care and recovery centers would see an additional $200 per day payment for two additional months as well.

Also included in the supplemental:

  • $15 million for supplies and equipment supporting coronavirus testing and vaccination efforts, including personal proactive equipment and dry ice;
  • $17.9 million to reimburse hospitals up to $3,100 per five-day treatment to cover the costs of remdesivir for Medicaid patients with COVID-19;
  • $10 million to contract with a nonprofit hospital trade association to distribute grants for temporary hospital staffing assistance;
  • $3.5 million for grants to eligible live music and entertainment venues with individual grants capped at $40,000;
  • $5 million for costs associated with implementing SB 943; and
  • $2.5 million $500 grants to eligible teachers for Great Start Readiness programs, Head Start, special education, and adult education teachers.

It also includes $51.3 million for COVID-19 vaccine strategies and $22.55 million for coronavirus response strategies, including the testing of vulnerable populations. $15 million is set to purchase testing supplies and equipment for COVID testing and vaccination efforts. $10 million is also appropriated for temporary hospital staffing assistance.

While the bill passed overwhelmingly, there were still some concerns. Rep. Alex Garza (D-Taylor) attempted to remove language allowing hazardous materials to be transported across the Ambassador Bridge in Detroit. Rep. Abdullah Hammoud (D-Dearborn) called the provision added to the bill in the Senate “shameful.”

Rep. Tommy Brann (R-Wyoming), a restaurant owner, urged Congress to pass more substantial relief for businesses that have had to close or have otherwise been affected during COVID.

Other Democratic lawmakers called for more work in the term starting next month to get funding to help local governments.

House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) said in a statement the bill provides support to workers and businesses, “who have been left behind by their government and extends a lifeline right when they need it the most.”

“People are worried about the effects of the latest shutdown and what it means for their families. We are listening and looking for ways to help,” he said. “Of course, the best way to help people is to follow the science and safely and securely reopen Michigan’s schools and small businesses. Until that happens, we will continue to fight for the people we represent, support working families with our votes, and ensure everyone can continue to make ends meet.”

Under an order from the Department of Health and Human Services, restaurants remain closed to dine-in service through Jan. 15 (by then they will have been barred from dine-in service for almost two months).

Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association President Justin Winslow called the supplemental good news for the industry.

“As we begin our arc towards more sunlight on this winter solstice, Michigan’s beleaguered restaurants and hotel operators received the first pieces of good news in some time, giving all of us hope that brighter days lie ahead,” Winslow said in a statement. “We are thankful to the Michigan Legislature, which put partisan politics aside to pass a much-needed stimulus package that will provide direct and meaningful relief to those in this industry most impacted by the extended second shutdown.”


Whitmer Turns to Detroit Budget Director to Replace Kolb

One of Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan’s top aides will head up Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s budget work.

Gov. Whitmer announced Monday that Dave Massaron, the city of Detroit’s chief financial officer for the past two years and a top advisor to Duggan since 2014, will succeed outgoing Budget Director Chris Kolb.

“Throughout his service to the city of Detroit, Dave Massaron has shown a deep commitment to ensuring Detroiters have the support they need. He is uniquely qualified to serve as budget director for the state, where I am confident he will work around the clock to build a balanced budget that supports our recovery from the pandemic by investing in our public schools, public health and safety, and economic opportunity,” Gov. Whitmer said in a statement. “I look forward to working closely with Dave to pass a bipartisan budget and ensure we provide everyone the support and services they need.”

Massaron starts Jan. 4, coming aboard at a critical time as the Whitmer administration finalizes the Governor’s 2021-22 fiscal year budget recommendation, due in February.

Before becoming the city’s CFO in 2019, he was chief operating officer for the Duggan administration, overseeing all city operations. Prior to his work with Duggan, he was an attorney in private practice, first with Dickinson Wright and then with Miller Canfield.

“I am grateful that Gov. Whitmer has entrusted me with the task of building a strong, balanced budget for Michiganders that invests in our shared values,” Massaron said. “It was the greatest honor of my career to work and learn from Mayor Duggan as we restructured the city to better serve its residents. I’m ready and eager to work with the governor’s team and the state Legislature to get a bipartisan budget passed for the 2021-2022 fiscal year.”

The next order of business will be replacing Deputy Budget Director Kyle Jen, who is leaving to become management and budget director in Oakland County.

Sen. Curtis Hertel (D-East Lansing), minority vice chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, praised Massaron’s hiring.

“David Massaron is one of my oldest and dearest friends,” he said in a statement. “He is also one of the smartest and most loyal people I’ve ever worked with. I can think of no better person to lead the Governor’s budget office.”

Jared Fleisher, vice president of government affairs for the Rock Family of Companies, said based on the organization’s experience with Massaron in Detroit, he will be an exceptional budget director for the state.

And Jeff Donofrio, president and CEO of Business Leaders for Michigan, who worked with Massaron when both were in the Duggan administration, said Massaron has “a record of driving consensus and compromise on complex issues. His experience in helping restore fiscal stability in the city of Detroit will be invaluable as the state continues to deal with COVID-19 and works to rebuild our economy.”


Corbin Praises Aid for Unemployment; Talks Managing Fraud

As Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is anticipated to sign a bill which will allot millions in state aid for unemployment payments – and the federal government stands to do the same – Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity Acting Director Susan Corbin said the money is only part of what the agency has its eye on when tackling the effects COVID-19 has had on Michigan.

In an interview with Gongwer News Service Monday, Corbin spoke highly of the Legislature’s recent move to approve a supplemental which would extend unemployment benefits from 20 to 26 weeks and see $220 million in funding be used in covering that temporary extension in benefits, which will run from Jan.1 through April 1, 2021.

The Senate passed the supplemental Friday, with the House giving it a green light early Monday morning (see separate story).

“If we had not extended our benefits to 26 weeks, Michigan citizens would not have been eligible for the federal programs that came in,” Corbin said, speaking of programs such as Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation. “We absolutely support the extension to 26 weeks.”

Between the pending state aid and the $900 billion federal aid anticipated to be signed before the end of this year, Corbin said the incoming funds will be “certainly be helpful to Michigan families” even with the reduction in additional claimant aid from $600 at the federal level to $300, adding: “It will give a significant boost over what they receive in state unemployment assistance.”

It was initially believed up to 700,000 Michiganders – 487,000 claimants of which filed for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance and the other 205,000 filing for Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation – could have lost benefits should Congress not have approved its own stimulus plan.

Corbin assumed her role at LEO in October after former Director Jeff Donofrio left to helm Business Leaders for Michigan. She has been with LEO since it was first rebranded in 2019, serving as the department’s senior chief deputy; prior to that, Corbin has worked as a senior advisor in Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s office, director of customer assistance with the Michigan Public Service Commission and in other state departments including the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

One of the several moving pieces Corbin has her eye on in the run up to disbursement of additional unemployment dollars is continuing to manage fraudulent claims made by bad actors. It was discovered in November wrongful claims made to the Unemployment Insurance Agency resulted in “hundreds of millions” of dollars given to scammers rather than legitimate claimants.

The UIA has disbursed roughly $26 billion in benefits to 2.2 million residents, having processed as many claims since March 15, 2020 – the unofficial onset of the pandemic in Michigan – to now as it has in the last seven years combined.

Since the release of a report outlining the extent of fraudulent claims, Corbin said LEO has been working with the Department of Attorney General and the Department of State Police to create a task force meant to look at how fraud was committed and what the UIA can do to stop it. She said the department has also hired a former secret service agent “as a fraud advisor,” and is working with a number of other partners at the state and federal level to rectify the issue.

Corbin added there are “some active investigations” regarding unemployment fraud currently ongoing but could not speak more to where the agency is seeing faux claims being lodged from.

“The $600 that we received through the CARES Act just made Michigan, and states all across the country, vulnerable to this imposter fraud. There were sophisticated criminal rings and criminals who used previously stolen personally identifiable information to file these fraudulent claims … our investigators have had to become very sophisticated in identifying imposter claims,” Corbin said. “We’re really trying to combine efforts so that we can all stay on top of what is the latest trick that these fraudsters are using.”

FUTURES FOR FRONTLINERS: As the application deadline for LEO’s Futures for Frontliners program draws nearer, the last day being Dec. 31, Corbin also said it was a priority of the department to make sure frontline workers are aware the program was still available to them as the state takes its first steps in restarting an eventual post-pandemic economy.

More than 100,000 frontline workers have already applied, Corbin said, adding that LEO is now urging those applicants to complete their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FASFA) forms so that, once approved, they can be moved quickly through the program.

The program comes as part of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s 60 by 30 program, which seeks to equip 60% of the state’s working-age residents with some sort of certificate or college degree by 2030. That initiative has somewhat been affected by the pandemic, Corbin acknowledged, though she did feel the metric was still attainable for the state despite minor setbacks.

“We know from the interest in Futures for Frontliners that people are interested in pursuing their degrees, pursuing advanced certifications or certifications that are in-demand careers – or for certifications that will help them expand a career they might currently be in,” Corbin said. “I think that the Futures for Frontliners and the MI Reconnect program, those will be solutions to getting us back on track in terms of increasing or restoring enrollment in our four-year institutions and community colleges.”

Corbin said the MI Reconnect program was sidelined in 2020 but that LEO anticipates “rolling the program out early in 2021.” The program – which offers adults aged 25 and older financial support in obtaining some sort of postsecondary degree or certification – saw its funding restored in LEO’s 2020-21 budget in September.


Supplemental Would Allow HazMat Over Ambassador Bridge

A surprise addition to the supplemental appropriations bill whose main purpose was to deal with COVID-19 was language that would authorize trucks to haul hazardous materials, principally gasoline, over the Ambassador Bridge as the bridge owners have been seeking for years.

Boilerplate language was added in SB 748 to achieve the change, but it was unclear Friday night after the Senate passed the bill if it was part of the negotiations on the spending aspects of the bill. The Department of Transportation has opposed the change.

Starting in early 2019, not long after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer succeeded Gov. Rick Snyder, the Detroit International Bridge Company began inquiring about what it would take to allow nonradioactive hazardous materials over the Ambassador like gasoline, paint, industrial cleaners, and other flammable items. The Snyder administration had opposed the change for years.

DIBC officials had said the issue was about safety and fairness. Safety, because trucks now make the trip 60 miles farther to the Blue Water Bridge in Port Huron, and fairness because the Blue Water Bridge, International Bridge in Sault Ste. Marie and the eventual Gordie Howe International Bridge all will be allowed to have hazardous materials transported over them.

However, southwest Detroit residents and legislators remained ardently opposed because of longtime resentment at the bridge owners’ treatment of the region where the bridge lands on the Detroit side of the Detroit River. Legislators from other parts of the city, however, support the change.

Department of Transportation spokesperson Jeff Cranson said the Whitmer administration is reviewing the language added to the bill.

Gov. Whitmer cannot veto the language out of the bill because there is no money attached to it. She could try to declare it unenforceable but would have to cite a sound legal rationale for doing so.

Sen. Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit) said she voted against the supplemental because of the bridge language.

The boilerplate language directs MDOT to adopt and transit to the federal government changes to the nonradioactive hazardous material routing designation for the Ambassador Bridge expressed in a December 2012 report entitled “Hazardous Materials Routing Synopsis Report Wayne County: Proposed Recommendations.”

Chang said the boilerplate was harmful and the cited report was a rejected traffic study that ignores the health and safety of the residents of her district. She said it would allow for certain hazardous materials to be able to cross the aging bridge despite community opposition and it being found the study had not followed federal standards.

“Over 400 residents in and near my district signed a community petition opposing this request for hazmat on the bridge,” Chang said. “The Detroit city council members, Wayne County commissioner, members of Congress, Canadian member of Parliament, entire Windsor city council and yes me, the state senator all representing these neighborhoods directly impacted have all written our opposition to this request because it would jeopardize the health and safety of our residents.”

She also cited drinking water concerns and that the bridge is 90 years old.


Whitmer Questions Reduction in Vaccine Doses; Feds Deny Claim

A spokesperson with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said Friday that their counterpart in Michigan did not have its next allotment of coronavirus vaccine doses reduced by nearly a third though the state’s health agency and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer say differently.

Michigan health officials and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ranged from frustrated to outraged at the thought of the federal government delaying or withholding vital COVID-19 vaccine doses.

On Thursday, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services revealed that next week’s vaccine shipment would contain significantly fewer doses than expected, a bomb of sorts that was dropped on the department during a phone call Wednesday with federal health officials.

MDHHS spokesperson Lynn Sutfin said in an email Friday that officials with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Operation Warp Speed noted then that the state would be receiving just 60,000 doses next week of the Pfizer-manufactured vaccine.

While Sutfin did not say by how much fewer the shipment would be, The Detroit News on Thursday reported that it was 24,000 fewer doses (or a third less) than the expected 84,000.

Department officials were not provided a reason for the decrease in expected doses, Sutfin said.

In response, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer slammed the federal government for what she called either corruption or ineptitude leading to the state getting a fraction of the doses it was slated to receive.

She discussed the situation as she opened her press conference Friday talking about her friend Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon, who died of coronavirus complications on Thursday. Gov. Whitmer, who was choking up as she spoke about him, said he took the virus seriously after his brother spent 70 days in the hospital this spring.

“He was very careful. And he followed the protocols. And despite that, somehow even he contracted COVID. And in a matter of three weeks went from, he went from testing positive to being hospitalized, to being put on a ventilator, and passing away,” Gov. Whitmer said. “And my heart hurts. So, while I’ve stood here for approximately 80 press conferences over the last 10 months, stoic and resolved and focused. Today, I’m very sad and I’m pretty angry, too.

“And I’ll tell you why. I’m angry because people like Benny are losing this battle every single day. And I still cannot get a straight answer out of the Trump administration about why Michigan, like many other states, is receiving a fraction of the vaccines that we were slated to receive,” she said.

Gov. Whitmer said the state has hospitals and nursing homes ready to administer the vaccine and the bottleneck “appears to be the White House.”

“I have put a call into Secretary Azar’s office,” she said, referring to U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar. “And here’s what I want to ask if I could get them on the phone: Where are our doses? What is holding them up? When can we expect them? I’m angry because this virus is raging on in this country, and there is either corruption or ineptitude that is keeping us from saving lives and protecting people.”

Also discouraged by the news were Michigan Health and Hospital Association CEO Brian Peters and Ruthanne Sudderth, the group’s senior vice president of public affairs and communication.

In a statement, Peters said he found the lack of communication and clarity about the allocation of the vaccine “disappointing and frustrating.”

“Hospitals have gone to great lengths to ensure that frontline caregivers are available to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, which pulls vital staff away from treating patients when Michigan is in the middle of a second COVID-19 surge,” Peters said. “Any delay in receipt of vaccine prolongs the vaccination process and puts health care workers at increased risk for contracting this deadly disease. Hospitals need consistent and accurate communication and allocation estimates to ensure quality of care is not interrupted.”

In a series of tweets, Sudderth said she too was disappointed, adding that they had caregivers ready to be vaccinated and fewer doses would affect how swiftly they could provide those vaccines.

“The logistics of planning roughly 1,000, if not more, employee vaccines in one hospital each week is greatly helped by consistent and accurate allocation estimates,” Sudderth said. “These workers have to be taken off the floor, come in on an off day, or otherwise, all while the hospital keeps providing patient care.”

Sudderth was also clear that the burden for timely and effective deployment of the vaccine program rests with the federal agency.

“Officials at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services are simply given the number each week of what Michigan can expect the following week, and has to communicate that information back to providers,” she said. “Then providers have to adjust, all within hours. I think and hope this process will smooth out over time.”

However, a U.S. DHHS spokesperson in a statement provided to Gongwer News Service said Friday that Operation Warp Speed allocation numbers locked in with states have not been changed or adjusted.

The spokesperson said that only three official allocations have been provided to states, including a week one Pfizer deployment on Nov. 20, a week one Moderna allocation on Nov. 27, and a week two Pfizer allocation on Tuesday.

Those are currently the only official allocation numbers provided to states, the spokesperson said.

“Jurisdictions are allocated doses pro rata by population over 18 years old. Allocations will depend on the amount of vaccine available,” the spokesperson said. “Each week, OWS will let states know how many doses are available to order against for the coming week. Shipments to a jurisdiction may arrive over several days.”

Michigan is not the only state announcing that the CDC and Operation Warp Speed reduced their incoming vaccine supplies. Illinois, Montana, Kansas, Nebraska, New Hampshire, and Indiana have all reported that they’ve been told the same.

To that, the federal agency said reports of reductions are incorrect.

“As was done with the initial shipments of Pfizer vaccine, jurisdictions will receive vaccine at different sites over several days. This eases the burden on the jurisdictions and spreads the workload across multiple days,” a spokesperson said. “This same process was successfully used for the initial distribution of Pfizer’s vaccine, and we are simply applying lessons learned. Operation Warp Speed is committed to delivering jurisdictions’ allocated vaccines according to their plans safely, quickly, and efficiently.”

Sutfin did not respond when asked about the federal agency’s statement or if the Michigan department was sure that it would be receiving fewer doses in the week to come.

In his statement, Peters also said that he was hopeful the issue would be addressed quickly so hospitals around the country “can focus on caring for our communities.”