For the first time in nearly a decade, Michigan’s government will be divided.
On one side, a Republican-led legislature that over the last few years has repealed the state’s prevailing wage law, weakened the power of unions, eliminated straight-ticket voting and sought to lower the state income tax.
On the other, a Democratic governor who promises a variety of progressive, expansive policies, from implementing universal preschool and two years of debt free college to shutting down the Enbridge Line 5 pipeline and finding $2 billion a year in state funds to restore the state’s roads and infrastructure.
Governor-elect Gretchen Whitmer has touted her legislative experience and ability to reach bipartisan compromises. Beginning in January, Michiganders will see whether their new governor and legislative leaders in Lansing can come together or whether they’ll stalemate on the biggest issues facing the state.
“They’re going to have to do some soul-searching,” said former Republican state Senate majority leader Ken Sikkema. “I think both sides can hold on to their core principles and still search for common ground that can move the state forward.” (Disclosure: Sikkema is a longtime consultant to The Center for Michigan, Bridge Magazine’s parent organization.)
There are some issues on which we mostly agree: Roads need fixing. Education needs improving. Water quality needs protecting. What follows, though, are specific areas where Michigan’s new political leaders might find early common ground, which in turn could lead to further collaboration.
Whitmer’s major campaign promise was to “fix the damn roads” by investing billions every year in the state’s dire infrastructure. The legislature also hopes to improve the roads, so this may be an opportunity for compromise over a shared goal.
But will a conservative-led legislature be willing to approve the funds necessary to make needed improvements, which will almost surely require more taxes or fees?
It will depend, in part, on whether new Republican leadership (led by Sen. Mike Shirkey and Rep. Lee Chatfield) are willing to take that fiscal dive after Republican vows to cut taxes failed to resonate during the midterms, said Sandy Baruah, CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber.
“Voters just didn't seem to really give the Republican Party or the president that much credit for the (federal) tax cuts, so I don't know how the Republican legislature is going to view the tax issue,” Baruah said. “If they think that just opposing any tax or any fee to support roads is going to be a winning message for them, I don't know how they're going to calculate that.”
Polling is mixed on whether Michiganders are willing to pay for better roads (though they almost universally acknowledge that they despise their current condition.) One poll suggested that the state’s business community is willing to pay, even as a recent business survey indicated little consensus on what form that might take.
Multiple experts note that Whitmer will benefit from the roads funding plan the legislature and Gov. Snyder passed in 2015, which will continue to kick in new funds for roads as her administration begins.
“There’s going to have to be some new thinking here especially when you’re dealing with still a Republican-dominated legislature that’s probably going to continue to be adverse to any kind of tax increases,” said Arnold Weinfeld, Interim Director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University.
“I’m guessing that the legislative leadership will wait for her to lay her options on the table. They may say, ‘look, we’ve already addressed this.’”
“One significant policy reform that seems potentially within grasp is auto insurance,” Tom Ivacko, associate director of the University of Michigan Center for Local, State and Urban Policy, wrote Bridge in an email. Michigan has the highest car insurance rates in the country and both 2018 candidates for governor pledged to lower rates.
“If the state needs to find some policy success that helps everyday Michiganians, there are a range of options to lower insurance costs without requiring massive new state revenues.”
Sen. Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof told the Associated Press that tackling auto insurance (in particular, allowing elderly drivers to avoid paying most of the fee for unlimited medical benefits) is his top priority for the lame duck session, so there may be movement on the issue before January, when two-term Republican Gov. Rick Snyder leaves office.
Auto insurance is “an issue that’s been out there for a decade without a solution,” said John Truscott, president of Lansing-based public relations firm Truscott Rossman and a former press secretary for two Republican governors.
“It’s one that they’ve been close to compromise numerous times and then one group blows it up. So I think if they really tried that could be the great victory that everybody could claim out of lame duck.”
Criminal justice reform
Republicans under Snyder have looked for ways to reduce the cost of Michigan’s criminal justice system by, for instance, finding ways to reduce the state’s prison population. The day after her election, and after voters approved the legalization of recreational marijuana, Whitmer announced she would consider granting clemency to people convicted of marijuana-related crimes.
That indicates that criminal justice reform, an issue Republicans in other states have embraced in recent years, could be a place for policy alignment between the new governor and legislature, experts say.
“You could see that in the first year here. People are coming to the table for different reasons,” said TJ Bucholz, President and CEO of the left-leaning Vanguard Public Affairs. “Democrats are coming to the criminal justice reform table for human rights reasons. Republicans are coming to the same table because they see the high cost of maintaining prisons.”
Skilled trades education
As one of the biggest buzzwords of the 2018 midterms, jobs training for the skilled trades is likely to be something both Whitmer and conservatives can get behind; what Ivacko of the U-M policy center called one of the “lower hanging fruit.”
“We know many Michigan communities are suffering from housing shortages, and a key challenge there is our insufficient construction labor force,” Ivacko said. “So boosting technical and skilled trades education could have appeal across the state.
Truscott said much the same: “Go for the easy wins where you have agreement and everybody can work together and then that allows you to start building relationships to tackle the more difficult issues.”
Whitmer pledged to create a Department of Great Lakes and Freshwater and state infrastructure bank which would, among other things, help fund replacement of lead drinking water pipes. The threat of industrial chemicals called PFAS has exacerbated existing problems with drinking water across the state.
“There’s no way that the state with the most access to fresh water in the country (should have) the water issues that we have. And when you look at message polling, water was polling really high,” Bucholz said. “So I think you’re going to see (Whitmer) come out of the gate really strong on water, and I don’t think the Republicans are going to disagree with her much on it.”
However, Whitmer also promised to shut down the Enbridge Line 5 oil pipeline on the Straits of Mackinac. Weinfeld of MSU said there is “no way” a GOP-led legislature will work toward that goal with her. The two sides may be more likely to stick with the Snyder-initiated plan to build a $350 million tunnel to house the line far beneath the lake’s surface, protecting the line while keeping it functioning.
Bridge reporter Lindsay VanHulle contributed to this report