Senate: Cut part of SOS budget to fund redistricting panel

By DAVID EGGERT
Associated Press

LANSING, Mich. (AP) — The Republican-led Michigan Senate on Wednesday proposed cutting spending in Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson’s office to fund a new redistricting commission, a move she said violates the intent of the constitutional amendment approved by voters last fall.

A Senate budget bill, approved by a subcommittee on a 3-1 party-line vote, includes $4.6 million to create the independent panel that will redraw legislative and congressional maps after the 2020 census and beyond. To pay for the commission, however, there would be a corresponding 32% cut in Benson’s executive operations, branch operations, election regulations, property management and legal services.

Benson will serve as secretary of the commission and provide technical assistance to the 13 randomly appointed members. The Legislature is required to allocate an amount equal to at least 25% of the Department of State’s general funds to cover the commission’s operations and to pay the commissioners.

“Senate Republicans are violating the intent of the constitutional amendment,” Benson said in a statement. “This misunderstanding jeopardizes customer service at the branch offices and election security. I urge the full Senate to reject this approach, and I look forward to working with the Legislature to improve service to Michigan residents.”

Amber McCann, spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, defended the $4.6 million reduction along with a proposed general fund cut to Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel’s budget and less in state revenue-sharing to municipalities than what Whitmer wants. They are part of the normal process of “making adjustments to redirect funds to other areas like roads, school aid and some other places,” she said. Gross spending in the offices would rise or fall just slightly from this year, McCann said.

The Senate budget for the secretary of state’s office is about $4.8 million under what Whitmer proposed last month. Nessel’s department would see a $4.2 million “administrative reduction” not included by Whitmer.

Senators’ initial votes are the first in what could be a protracted budget process as the Democratic governor seeks a net $2 billion increase in road and bridge funding through a 45-cents-a-gallon fuel tax increase that has been rejected by GOP lawmakers. The House is still devising its budget blueprint. The next fiscal year starts in October.

Also Wednesday, the Senate’s higher education appropriations panel voted 5-2 on party lines to provide a 1.5% bump in state aid for 15 universities and 28 community colleges. Whitmer wants a 3% increase and to cap tuition hikes at 3.2% — lower than the Senate’s proposed 4.4% limit.

“We’ve underfunded higher education, and the cost of tuition keeps going up,” said Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr., an East Lansing Democrat who said “we as a state have to actually start investing.”

The chairwoman, Republican Sen. Kim LaSata of Berrien County’s Bainbridge Township, countered that “we were looking at available tax dollars that we had, not looking at any potential dollars. That is an issue. We continue to talk about becoming a top 10 state, but we don’t put our money where our mouths are.”

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