He's got to balance Michigan's pandemic budget.
From the September, 2020 issue
Soon after Gretchen Whitmer was elected governor two years ago, Chris Kolb heard that he might be under consideration for a job in her administration. He'd been running the Michigan Environmental Council for ten years and was happy there, but decided that "if my governor asked me to help, I'd do it."
Soon afterward, Kolb got a phone call inviting him to interview for state budget director. After meeting with a committee that included a past director, he found himself in Whitmer's transition office in the basement of Constitution Hall in Lansing.
They'd known each other since 2001, when both arrived in Lansing as newly elected state reps. Whitmer represented East Lansing, so the two college-town legislators had what he recalls as a "friendly competition" over the merits of their respective schools. Still, going into the interview, he was very nervous.
Whitmer dove right in. "Kolb, why do you want to be my state budget director?" she demanded.
"And I said, 'Governor, why do you want me to be your budget director?'" he recalls. "And she burst out laughing!"
From there on, he says, "the interview went really well." She offered him the job, and the onetime Ann Arbor city councilmember stepped into the most powerful position of his career.
He realized it would be tough. But no one imagined a pandemic.
"I wish we weren't facing the $3 billion deficit," he says during a distanced interview in the Kerrytown courtyard. "But we are."
Tall and trim, Kolb is sixty-one but looks much younger. A lifelong Ann Arborite, he graduated from Huron High and U-M and did grad work in political science at Emory University. Dressed in jeans, a deep blue T-shirt, and tan loafers, he still has the broad, boyish smile that was his trademark on city council from 1992 to 2000.
Kolb's unforced friendliness coexists with his policy wonk side, and the combination has advanced his career. In the legislature, "he worked across the aisle," remembers
Lana Pollack, the former state senator who preceded him running the environmental council. "He was more quick to enter into negotiations than conflict."
That reputation was tested during last year's unusually bitter budget battle. While the governor proposes a budget, the legislature must pass it--and Republicans control both houses.
Last September when the two sides couldn't agree about spending priorities, the legislature passed its own budget--to which Whitmer responded with 147 line-item vetoes. A grudging compromise was reached in December.
Then came Covid-19. In April, tax revenue fell 40 percent from a year earlier.
"Michigan was in a strong financial position going into this," Kolb says. "We had over a billion dollars in our rainy day fund." But the pandemic could easily swallow it whole.
"There's no playbook on the shelf for this," Kolb told bridgemi.com in May. "This is potentially as bad, if not worse than, the Great Recession."
The state constitution requires a balanced budget. But when the administrative and legislative teams reconvened to balance the 2020 budget, Kolb admits, "there was a lot of mistrust to overcome."
Kolb's bipartisan history and calm demeanor helped keep the temperature down. Republican Jim Stamas, chair of the senate appropriations committee, calls him an "amazing gentleman," adding diplomatically that "he recognizes I have not necessarily the same goal."
The state has a total budget of just over $60 billion. The negotiators were looking at a projected $6.2 billion deficit this year and next. Temporary furloughs and a wage and hiring freeze saved about $145 million, and they agreed to pull $350 million from the rainy day fund. But the lifesaver was $3.9 billion in federal coronavirus relief funds. After passing on $800 million to large local governments, the rest was allocated to Covid-related costs.
Whitmer had sent her proposed 2021 budget to the legislature just before the pandemic hit. It was outdated on arrival, but revising it had to wait till the 2020 budget was resolved.
"Long story short, we are well behind our typical schedule and will have to work v[ery] quickly in Sept to get a budget negotiated and passed," emails treasury spokesperson Kurt Weiss.
The good news is that the general fund deficit may come in a bit below the earlier $3 billion estimate. The bad news is that this time, congressional Republicans aren't eager to help. Congress adjourned in August without acting on a new relief bill, and Weiss says that no action is expected until mid- to late September. But by law, the state must adopt a budget by October 1.
"It's been stressful," Kolb says. Whatever his department negotiates has to pass the Republican-controlled legislature. Yet, "you know the governor's expecting you to deliver a package that she can sign that still supports her priorities."
No wonder he's had lots of sleepless nights lately.
The one upside to the pandemic is that Kolb is no longer commuting an hour each way to Lansing. He's hunkered down in a home near Wurster Park with his fiance, U-M business analyst Ken Witherspoon. Except for a couple of press conferences with the governor, he's been transacting the state's business on the phone or through Zoom.
Without help from Washington, Michigan will be forced to make crippling spending cuts that hit every part of the state. "Even if we eliminated twelve departments--plus the legislative budget and the judiciary budget--there would not be enough savings to cover the estimated $3 billion hole," Kolb says.
Unlike the state, "the federal government can print money basically in its basement," he says. "That's why we look to them in these times to step up," as they did with the stimulus during the Great Recession.
"This is not a red state or a blue state issue," Kolb says. Unfortunately, not everyone agrees.
In mid-August, Michigan senate majority leader Mike Shirkey told a Jackson radio station that, instead of asking for a bailout, "We just need to suffer through it."
"With over 90 percent of the state general fund and school aid fund supporting schools, colleges and universities, local communities, public safety and health care," Kolb responds, "which of these groups should suffer through?"
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