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Gov. Whitmer, don’t forget these four pressing issues facing Michigan

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is delivering her 2022 State of the State speech virtually on Wednesday because of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Bridge file photo)

LANSING — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer plans to talk about a host of crucial issues during her fourth State of the State address Wednesday: the economy, education and infrastructure.

But COVID-19 looms large, much as it has for much of the Democrat’s first term.

How to watch

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer will deliver her 2022 State of the State address at 7 p.m. Wednesday. Because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the speech will be virtual.

Stream it on the governor’s website at 2022 State of the State. Several television stations also are carrying it live. Check local listings.

For the second year in a row, Whitmer will deliver the address remotely due to the pandemic. Usually, the speech is in the state House chambers. 

Related:

While there are indications the omicron wave of COVID-19 is waning, there’s also no end in sight to the pandemic that has upended the economy, led to student learning loss and closed schools and intensified a slow-burning mental health crisis in the state.

Those are among the four big issues facing Michiganders today. Here’s a look at where the state stands on all:

COVID-19 Pandemic

Michiganders entered 2022 – the third year of COVID-19 – as the highly transmissible omicron variant surge rapidly took hold of the nation.

Since March 2020, more than 1.9 million Michigan residents have tested positive for COVID-19 and 29,226 have died. More died of the virus in 2021 than the first year of the pandemic.

A downturn in statewide hospitalizations and positivity rates over the past week reflects a glimmer of hope. But cases are mounting in northern Michigan, particularly the Upper Peninsula, suggesting the wave of infections may be far from peaking.

And the state’s vaccination rate, despite a $1 million lottery and other efforts, lags other states.

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Michigan ranks 36th in the percentage of fully vaccinated population ages 12 and older, according to a New York Times analysis. As of Jan. 18, more than 5.8 million Michiganders – more than half of the state’s population – are fully vaccinated, and more than 2.7 million have received a booster, according to a state report

Over the past 12 months, the unvaccinated accounted for 79.5 percent of all cases and 82.8 percent of all deaths, according to a Jan. 11 report by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. National data shows the unvaccinated are six to 21 times more likely to die from COVID-19. 

Whitmer, who backed President Joe Biden’s failed vaccine mandate, has resisted implementing any statewide restrictions after vaccines and boosters became widely available last year, arguing Michiganders have the chance to safeguard their own health without government intervention

Economy

The economy is beginning to recover, but Michigan still ranks among the bottom half of the states in economic growth, a recent study suggests

Among Michigan’s mixed economic signs:

  • Unemployment is down to 5.9 percent, as of November. That’s significantly lower than the 10 percent statewide average in 2020, but higher than the national average of 4.2 percent that month.
  • Fewer workers are returning. The state’s labor force participation rate stood at 59.5 percent as of November 2021, lower than average annual levels in previous years, including 2020.
  • Workers are making more money: Average weekly wages were $1,029 in December, 3 percent more than February 2020 when adjusted for inflation.

Whitmer is expected to trumpet Tuesday’s announcement by General Motors that it will invest $7 billion in electric vehicles in Michigan that it says will create 4,000 jobs — and use the speech to propose a $2,500 rebate for electric car purchases, The Detroit News reported.

The state’s coffers, meanwhile, are at historic highs, thanks in large part to increased spending. Michigan hauled in $1.7 billion more revenues than expected for fiscal year 2022, according to a recent state report.

Another $7.1 billion in federal stimulus aid has yet to be appropriated by Michigan lawmakers — money that advocates say could be spent on a host of needs including the state’s woeful infrastructure (more than a quarter of bridges are obsolete) or digital divide (1 in 4 houses lack broadband internet.)

The Associated Press reported that Whitmer will propose tripling the state’s tax credit for low and medium-income workers. This would mean that about 73,000 families in the state would save $350 extra.

Republicans are cautious, and House Appropriations Chair Thomas Albert, R-Lowell, said lawmakers need to resist ongoing investments that could strain budgets in future years. He and others have called for tax cuts.

Education

In education, there’s a lot of room for improvement.

K-12 students are average to below-average in learning nationally. Michigan ranked 28th in eighth grade math and reading and 32nd in fourth-grade reading and 42nd in fourth-grade math, in the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress, the most recent national education comparison data available.

That is an improvement over the past decade, when Michigan routinely ranked in the bottom 10 in the nation.

The pandemic made matters worse, as scores on the M-STEP, the state’s standardized test, dropped in the 2020-21 school year. 

Particularly hard hit was learning among minority and low-income students, who were more likely to have classrooms closed. Michigan students who were forced online by the pandemic learned less than students who were in classrooms, according to a recent study

Funding to Michigan schools has increased in recent years, and that funding was turbocharged in 2021 by federal COVID relief money. Whether that funding or an increased emphasis on early reading boosts learning won’t be known for several years.

Higher education faces similar struggles. The state ranks 34th in share of adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher (30 percent), and is below the national average in percent of adults with any kind of post-high school credential (49.1 percent, compared to 51.9 percent for the U.S.). That impacts the state’s economy, because income rises with education level.

Whitmer has launched an effort to lure adults back to college, with free community college tuition.

Mental health

Beyond learning loss, the pandemic has exacerbated gaps in Michigan’s mental health system for children, experts say.

More than a third of children in need of help don’t get it, according to a June 2021 report released by the Citizens Research Council of Michigan. 

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Likewise, there was 1 school psychologist for every 1,521 state students in the 2019-2020 school year, below the national average of 1 per 1,211 and far below the ratio of 1 per 500 students recommended by the National Association of School Psychologists,  according to the group.

Statewide, there were 239 child and adolescent psychiatrists as of June 2021. Many are scarce in rural Michigan, and the overall rate of 10.9 per 100,000 adolescents is nearly five times lower than recommended by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, according to the Citizens Research Council.

Advocates and lawmakers want to overhaul the system.

State Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, and Rep. Mary Whiteford, R-Casco Township, have introduced proposals to eliminate the state’s system of contracting with community mental health agencies to provide services.

Shirkey would transfer managed care to commercial health insurers, while  Whiteford would replace the plans with a single public entity or nonprofit.

Advocates fear both proposals would privatize parts of Michigan’s $3.6 billion mental-health system and shift responsibilities to for-profit insurers. 

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