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IDs for undocumented workers? And other surprises from Michigan Democrats

August 2018 update: Gretchen Whitmer wins Democratic primary for Michigan governor

Extending state services to immigrants without documentation. Solving recessions with shovels. And debate over when best to raid Michigan’s cash reserves.

Those were among the surprises last week, when Bridge Magazine and its media partners in the Detroit Journalism Cooperative sat down with three Democrats running for governor: Former Detroit Health Director Abdul El-Sayed, Ann Arbor businessman Shri Thanedar and former Sen. Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer.

Here are five intriguing takeaways from the hour-long interviews:

Give undocumented immigrants access to state resources

Michigan has been slowly growing over the last several years, but many worry that this limited population growth is not enough to hold on to all 14 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. One possible solution to that, some say, is to attract more immigrants to Michigan.

El-Sayed is on board, but takes it a step further: He favors making it easier for more than 97,000 people without documentation living within the state’s borders to access state resources.

He outlined several ways he would advocate for immigrants — including the promise that Michigan “will not expend a dime of state taxpayer resources enforcing federal immigration policy that at best is incoherent and at worst is heartless” — before throwing his support behind allowing undocumented immigrants access to certain state resources.

“We’ve also got to make sure that in this state we are not discriminating by documentation status,” he said.

“Now if you’re undocumented, you don’t get access to a driver’s license, so you’re stuck. You don’t get access to a lot of the basic things the state offers everybody else. And I think that’s ridiculous, so I think we’ve got to stop discriminating that way.”

It became illegal to issue driver’s licenses to undocumented Michiganders in 2008. There is now a bipartisan bill introduced in the state House to change that, but it has not left committee.

A $30 billion bond

All of the Democratic gubernatorial candidates have said they would expand government services and invest in various projects, including many plans that would bear a hefty price tag.

Thanedar’s proposals include plans to remove all of the state’s lead service lines, provide universal childcare and pre-K, increase funding for K-12 education, make college free for some students, forgive college debt for those who become teachers, eliminate the state income tax for lower-income families, give free healthcare to those affected by the Flint crisis and more.

That’s a dramatic growth in government. How would he pay for all that? Through a $30 billion bond over 30 years “serviced by the corporate graduated income tax on ultra-rich and corporations,” Thanedar said. “So, we would also minimize any tax incentives, tax giveaways to big corporations. And some of that, we will have over $500 million of savings. We would have some savings from our prison reform and that would also be used for servicing the 30-year bond.”

When asked twice to specifically describe how much his programs would cost, Thanadar couldn’t say.

When is it raining? It’s hard to say.

Michigan has a savings account dubbed the “rainy day” fund, which is intended to stabilize the budget during a recession. During the Snyder administration that fund has been built up to nearly $1 billion.

When asked whether spending those savings before a recession was a wise, Whitmer said a surplus doesn’t help Michiganders who are suffering now.

“It’s raining for people in Flint. What does that mean? Does building up and having a great credit rating mean much if you have a city full of families that still doesn’t trust the water coming out of their taps?” she said. “Does it mean much if your roads are turning to gravel? Does it mean much if you’ve got 100 communities that can’t drink their water? My answer’s no.”

But Whitmer walked back her call to spend and protect practically in the same breath.

“I’m not suggesting that we use that to fund all the priorities I’m talking about,” she said.

Combating recession with orange cones

Michigan’s economy is steadily growing, but experts say the state is overdue for another recession. So how best to prepare?

Thanedar is pinning his hopes on construction projects.

“Michigan really needs a huge amount of infrastructure improvement,” Thanedar said. “As the recession begins, I would use some of the ($30 billion) bond money to initiate jobs in the construction industry that would generate hundreds of thousands of jobs which would counteract any economic downturn that we may see.”

He concluded by saying he is the only gubernatorial candidate with a proven history of creating jobs.

How to fund roads? Wait and see.

“Fix the damn roads” has been one of Whitmer’s campaign calling cards, as she tours the state touting a plan requiring $20 billion in state funds over 10 years.

“I would fund it through perhaps some of these mechanisms that I’ve cast votes on during my time in the Legislature,” she said. “My commitment is that there will be $2 billion built into the budget next year” for road funding — an increase of $1.5 billion from current funding structures.

How? Well, let’s wait and see, Whitmer said.

Snyder “proposed all sorts of user fees and those were all pieces of it,” she said.

“The Legislature could look very different next year. The environment could be very different next year,” Whitmer said. “That’s why I think it’s important to tell you what my commitment is but all the different pieces of it may change based on how the environment changes.”

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