The sharp contrast in priorities between the Senate Democratic majority and the Republican minority was exposed in fights over proposed budget amendments dealing with school safety and economic development incentives on Thursday, the final day of the chamber’s initial passage of its spending plan.
Still, despite the disagreements, leadership on both sides expressed a desire to work together on crafting a bipartisan final budget.
Members passed the Senate’s remaining two budget bills Thursday, ending a three-day process during which Senate Republicans offered a combined total of 176-floor amendments. Each one was defeated.
On Thursday, the sharpest example of a partisan divide was seen in a debate over a school safety amendment introduced by Sen. Lana Theis (R-Brighton) to SB 173, the K-12 budget.
Her amendment sought to add language to allow schools to purchase defibrillators and trauma kits under the more than $300 million in the school aid budget for school safety improvement grants.
Democrats lashed out at Theis and Republicans for offering the amendment, with Sen. Sarah Anthony (D-Lansing), chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, calling the amendment insulting while adding school safety should not be politicized.
Anthony pointed to reports of a threat against Saline High School students this week. Grand Rapids Public Schools banned students from bringing backpacks to school following reports of multiple recent incidents in which a student was found with a gun in their possession.
Sen. Jim Runestad (R-White Lake) responded by questioning why there had not been charges filed against the parents in the cases of students bringing guns to school.
“We constantly hear this … that the school’s bringing charges to the prosecutor,” Runestad said. “Sounds like there was not charges, that they’re pondering charges … against his parents. How is it middle school kids bringing guns to school, endangering the entire school system, and they are not screaming to bring charges. They’re saying, let’s stop the backpacks from coming in.”
Runestad said more needs to be done with school safety, and the amendment would help.
Sen. Mallory McMorrow (D-Royal Oak) countered by pointing to Republicans’ votes earlier this year against the safe storage of firearms legislation pushed by Democrats.
“You voted against the very laws that would give the prosecutor something to charge the parents with,” McMorrow said. “Providing trauma kits, as this amendment would do, acknowledges that you accept a reality where kids have to prepare to be shot.”
Sen. Ed McBroom (R-Vulcan) stated he struggled to see why the option for purchasing the equipment was controversial. He pushed back on what might occur when firearms legislation eventually takes effect.
“I’m glad to hear that all the laws … are going to make sure all trauma ceases next year, and there’s not going to be any cause for trauma anymore,” McBroom said.
Republicans renewed their attacks on the Strategic Outreach and Attraction Reserve fund and the proposed Gotion, Incorporated, electric vehicle battery production facility in Mecosta County during debate over SB 194, the Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity budget.
Opponents of the Gotion project have pointed to its being a subsidiary of an EV battery company based in China that has locations in the United States. There have been repeated allegations that the company has ties to the Chinese Communist Party and that providing incentives to Gotion, in effect, would be providing money to the communist nation’s leaders.
Sen. Roger Hauck (R-Mount Pleasant) offered an amendment that have would have banned the expenditure of state monies to business entities that are supportive of the Chinese Communist Party as outlined in a business entity’s articles of incorporation.
The proposed facility, if built, would be located in his district.
“What should not be up for debate is whether or not you should provide state tax dollars to corporations who, before all else, pledge allegiance to our geopolitical enemies,” Hauck said. “The CCP are not our friends. We certainly should not be giving Michigan tax dollars to companies who are loyal to them.”
Runestad offered an amendment that would have barred funding to be transferred to the Critical Industry Program or the Michigan Strategic Site Readiness Program by the Michigan Strategic Fund Board prior to the completion of a foreign entity report on an applicant. All completed reports would have to be provided to the board as well as to the House and Senate.
“Surely there are more pressing investments we can be making than the $500 million dollar SOAR program, which most recently sent tens of millions to a company with ties to the Chinese Communist Party,” Runestad said. “We should be funding school safety, water infrastructure, fixing the damn roads. Or how about inflation relief for weary Michiganders?”
Runestad offered another amendment to SB 194 that would have allowed $500 million in the SOAR fund to lapse into the General Fund.
Sen. Jon Bumstead (R-North Muskegon), the minority vice-chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, introduced an amendment to transfer $500 million from the SOAR fund to the Michigan State Parks Endowment Fund.
Both SB 173 and SB 194 passed 20-18 along party lines. Members also cast 20-18 votes for two shell supplemental funding bills for the 2023-24 fiscal year: SB 174 and SB 291. The first supplemental bill would cover school aid funding, and the other would cover various state departments and agencies.
Anthony praised the budget bills in a floor speech, saying for 40 years, “too many stakeholders” have been left out of the budgeting process, something she believes has changed with the bills that were before the chamber this week.
“This week, we voted out recommendations for what I like to call the people’s budget because I see the people in Michigan in every facet of this budget,” Anthony said.
She said whether it is education, infrastructure, the environment, or funding for local governments, the budget addresses what she called years of disinvestment.
Anthony said there is a willingness on her side of the aisle to work collaboratively with the Republican members as the process moves to the next phase.
“Now that we’ve sat through nearly 200 amendments … I want you to take that same energy, that same desire, to co-create a budget that we can be proud of together,” Anthony said.
Senate Minority Leader Aric Nesbitt (R-Porter Township) told reporters the purpose of the amendments was to show the contrast between the two parties on budget priorities and where there are areas that need work during negotiations.
When asked if Republicans are ready to deny immediate effect if Democrats are not willing to negotiate some changes in the budget, Nesbitt said his hope is that a compromise can be reached which includes more infrastructure funding, paying down long-term debt, and providing further tax cuts to residents.
“I want to get a sustainable long-term budget,” Nesbitt said. “My hope is, I extend my arm out to try to work with our friends on the other side is that they actually extend their arm back, and my hope is that negotiations can get going.”
He added the Senate Republicans have provided numerous proposals to craft a sustainable budget, address key priorities and provide transparency to the public on how taxpayer monies are being spent.
“I don’t think there’s necessarily any red lines in the sand at this time, but there is one where we got to sit down and have those true negotiations,” Nesbitt said. “They put out their budgets. I think we’ve shown a contrast and what we’re looking at and where our priorities are.”
Sen. Darrin Camilleri (D-Brownstown Township) told reporters the school aid budget was a strong product, containing items including about $343 million for school safety grants, funding for increasing teacher pay, a student loan incentive program, formula changes to the funding levels for at-risk students and a program for providing pre-K to young children.
Regarding GOP arguments on underfunding school safety, he said Democrats allowed schools the flexibility to hire school resource officers and several other options to address the issue.
Camilleri said a proposed Republican amendment to provide more funding for rural transportation was one area where he was willing to have further conversations, adding the House included some funding in its recommendations for that purpose.
As to Republican arguments on having a chance to weigh in on the budget, Camilleri said he was never consulted by the GOP on budget matters during his six years in the minority party. By comparison, he said he and other appropriations subcommittee chairs sought input from across the aisle.
“I think that they’re learning how to be in the minority, and they’re really struggling with it,” Camilleri said. “When we were in this position, we did not offer 200 amendments on budgets; we actually tried behind the scenes … to use the process the way that it’s intended. They have not quite figured that out, which is something that I think they’ll get used to.”
When asked about the possibility of Republicans denying immediate effect on the final budget, Camilleri said he believes the minority party will come to the table after having gone through the process of showing their supporters that they are fighting for issues they care strongly about.
“There is no way that they’re going to shut down government over an immediate effect vote. If they do, we’ll be having a very different conversation,” Camilleri said.