LANSING — Failing schools. Crumbling roads. Water unfit to drink.
Michigan Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer painted a picture of a broken state that must be willing to finally invest in the basics during her first State of the State speech Tuesday evening.
“While it’s hard to imagine that things could get worse, that’s precisely what will happen if we don’t act boldly and swiftly,” Whitmer said of the state’s infrastructure failures — one of two crises, the other being education, outlined during a nearly hour-long speech. The address was lauded by Democrats for addressing the state’s pressing issues, and criticized by Republicans for lacking funding details.
Addressing a joint session of the state House and Senate, Whitmer laid out her priorities — among them, improving schools, protecting drinking water and fixing the state’s roads and bridges. Below, Bridge Magazine summarizes eight issues the governor addressed Tuesday, and how her remarks were received by Republicans and other skeptics.
Whitmer’s remarks were light on policy details — most notably, where to find the billions in additional dollars that experts say are needed for safe roads and competitive public schools — though she has promised more specifics when she presents her first budget March 5.
Whether Whitmer can reach her goals relies largely on how well she can work with the Republicans at the helm of the state Legislature, Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey and House Speaker Lee Chatfield, who sat impassively behind Whitmer during her remarks.
The speech was rife with appeals for cooperation alongside a few digs at the past eight years of total Republican control in Lansing. Whitmer at one point lampooned a spending bill passed in the 11th hour of the lame-duck session in December and said Republicans played “a shell game” with the state budget. But her speech was also replete with calls for cooperation and good will.
“It is important for us to remember,” Whitmer said, “the enemy is not the person across the aisle. The enemy is apathy. The enemy is extreme partisanship. The enemy is self-interest.”
Shirkey and Chatfield noted Tuesday evening that Whitmer’s address carried the spirit of bipartisanship that all three leaders have expressed early in the new administration.
The facts: Surprise: Michigan’s roads are in terrible shape. And if more money isn’t pumped into fixing them, experts agree they will continue to get worse. Paul Ajegba, the new director of the Michigan Department of Transportation, estimated $1.5 billion more is needed every year through 2031 for 90 percent of state-maintained roads to be considered in good and fair condition.
What Whitmer said: Whitmer emphasized the human cost of the state’s crumbling infrastructure during her speech, citing dangerous accidents and the high costs of repairs. She didn’t specify dollar amounts, but hinted that her budget will address the road funding crisis head on. “Incremental fund shifts, like we’ve seen in recent years, they just won’t fix the problem,” she said. “They only slow our decline.”
What Republicans say: Both Republican leaders talked about roads in interviews with Bridge earlier this year. Shirkey said he wants to wait until the $1.2 billion legislative road-funding package passed in 2015 is fully phased in by the end of 2021 before considering other options for road funding. Chatfield said he wants to address the “root problem” of how roads are funded, namely dedicating the state’s 6 percent sales tax collected on fuel sales to roads (currently, it goes mostly to K-12 schools), but has not specifically identified how he would make up the lost revenue for schools.
“We haven’t defined yet how much money we’re going to need for roads and for all of infrastructure. We have not yet heard the best ideas,” Shirkey said Tuesday. “Often times, the easiest solution is not the best solution, and seldom is the best solution the most popular.”
The facts: Michigan’s K-12 schools are in the bottom third in the nation for student achievement. In fact, the state’s education system is ranking last in the Midwest in every category measured by the National Assessment for Educational Progress, including fourth-grade reading and math, eighth-grade math and the achievement gap between low- and high-income students.
Michigan is also in the bottom half of the nation in the percentage of adult residents with a college degree. The barriers to entry for low-income students have been climbing: Tuition at the state’s universities has steadily risen over time, and spending on needs-based financial aid has been dropping, according to reports from the Michigan League for Public Policy.
What Whitmer said: Whitmer cited many of those statistics, and said the culprit is slow growth in education spending over the last 25 years, compared with other states.
“Let’s be very clear: This is not happening because our kids are less talented. This is not happening because our kids are less motivated. It’s not happening because our educators are less dedicated,” Whitmer said. “It’s happening because generations of leadership have failed them.”
The Michigan Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers in Michigan, the School Finance Research Collaborative and other education groups hailed Whitmer’s remarks on Tuesday, particularly her call for more K-12 funding.
“None of this is going to be easy, especially when it comes to addressing the systematic underfunding of public education,” MEA President Paula Herbart said in a statement. “Whether it’s the School Finance Research Collaborative’s adequacy study or the recent report from MSU about Michigan’s dismal record of education funding increases over the past 25 years, the research is clear that this isn’t a problem that started yesterday — or will be fixed in full tomorrow.”
What business leaders say: Rich Studley, president and CEO of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, told Bridge Tuesday the business community is aligned with Whitmer on the need to improve Michigan’s K-12 education outcomes, to get more people ready for work.
But, he added, the state’s poor academic performance is not a result of a lack of funding.
“Our view, after careful study, is that the problem is not a lack of government spending,” Studley said. “The problem is a poor return on investment. So this governor, I think, will have the ability to speak to the education community and lift them up, but also encourage them to be more efficient and more effective and to deliver better results at the local level.”
The facts: Michigan has plenty of jobs, but not enough people with the necessary skills to fill them, according to business groups. The strain is particularly acute in rural areas, which sometimes compete with urban areas for the same workers. Despite the demand, Michigan’s adult labor force participation is significantly lower than it was before the Great Recession. Improving the number of skilled trades workers was also a major goal for Whitmer’s predecessor, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder.
What Whitmer said: In some of her most concrete proposals of the evening, Whitmer outlined three programs she will push for to increase postsecondary educational attainment: A program for training mid-career adults in in-demand skills; a guarantee of two years of debt-free community college, and two years of tuition assistance for those who want to attend four-year universities.
The proposals will require legislative approval, but Whitmer said they’re necessary to meet an “aggressive” goal of increasing the number of Michigan residents who have a postsecondary credential or degree to 60 percent by 2030. That figure was 43.3 percent in 2014, with Michigan in the bottom half of states on that measure.
“We’ve got to start thinking differently about what it takes to succeed,” she said. “We used to think about careers in terms of ladders. There was one way up. But today it’s more like rock-climbing. There are many paths to a good life, and we need to help people find the one that is right for them.”
What Republicans say: “I don’t know (from) where the governor intends to pull the revenue to give away free community college and free two-year university education to folks,” Sen. Tom Barrett, R-Charlotte, told reporters after the address. "I’m not sure where she intends to pull that, but it’s going to have to come from somewhere else.”
The facts: The state has found more than 600 places around Michigan with PFAS — an industrial chemical linked to serious health risks — in their water. Experts say the state ignored evidence for years of the chemical’s dangers, only to kick off their response in 2017.
The state has officially declared Flint’s drinking water within government limits to drink and stopped providing bottled water, but residents there don’t trust their assurances. The future of relief efforts in the city are uncertain. Until now, Whitmer has said Flint residents should have access to bottled water distribution until all lead lines are replaced, but has not promised to resume state funding for the supplies.
What Whitmer said: Whitmer mentioned both major drinking water issues Tuesday, but didn’t offer specific proposals. Instead, she touted her announcement last week that she is changing the state’s Department of Environmental Quality to the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, with a greater focus on water quality and ensuring that vulnerable communities no longer bear the brunt of environmental contamination. The Republican legislature has strongly pushed back on Whitmer’s effort to erase industry-friendly boards created by Republicans last term intended to act as a check on state regulators.
“This problem may not have commanded as much national attention as the crisis in Flint, but it is just as urgent,” Whitmer said of PFAS. “It is time to step up our efforts to protect the health and safety of all Michiganders.”
What Republicans say: The state House last week voted to block Whitmer’s order because it also would eliminate boards that the Republican-majority Legislature adopted last year.
“What the House did recently was simply uphold previously passed legislation,” Chatfield told reporters Tuesday. “Though she acted within her constitutional limits of exercising some legislative authority, the House acted, too, and it was simply the first step in negotiations. And they are conversations I look forward to having.”
The facts: Michiganders pay the highest rates in the nation for auto insurance. The pain is especially acute in Detroit, where residents pay thousands of dollars more per year on average than the rest of the state. That’s in part because Michiganders are required to pay for no-fault insurance that includes unlimited lifetime medical benefits, meaning auto insurance covers all the medical costs of any injury related to a car accident as long as it persists. There are also complaints about soaring medical charges for people injured in accidents that critics say need to be reined in. Multiple attempts to change the system have stalled in the state Legislature in previous years.
What Whitmer said: Whitmer touched briefly on Republicans’ top priority this year, promising to work with them on the issue. But it came with a warning:
“I am eager to engage with any and all people of good faith about ideas and priorities, including your ideas on bringing down car insurance rates,” she said. “I am committed to this state and to solving problems. Therefore, I will reject anything presented as a solution that doesn’t really solve a problem — or creates a new one.”
Her commitment to talking it over brought a standing ovation from Republicans Shirkey and Chatfield. “Well,” Whitmer teased them, “I finally got you up!”
What Republicans say: Both Shirkey and Chatfield staked out no-fault reform as a top priority for this legislative session. Shirkey has proposed offering tiers of coverage for drivers to choose from. Chatfield has not said specifically how he’d like to change the system, but told Bridge Michiganders should “have the opportunity to select what level of coverage they would like.”
“My number one concern is fixing the damn car insurance prices, so I’m glad she spoke about it,” said Rep. Beau LaFave, R-Iron Mountain. He said he was disappointed to see it play second fiddle to roads. “Obviously we need to fix both, but if we’re going to fix something first, it should be the lowest-hanging fruit. Save the average family a $1,000 a year on car insurance.”
The facts: In June, Snyder signed into law new work requirements for recipients of the state’s Medicaid expansion program, known as the Healthy Michigan Plan. The law requires Healthy Michigan recipients who don’t otherwise qualify for an exemption to prove they worked an average of 80 hours per month at a job, or pursue education, job training or select other activities.
While proponents say it will encourage people to enter the workforce, critics say Medicaid was never designed to be a workforce program and are concerned it could cause thousands of people to lose health benefits, as has happened in Arkansas, which has a similar law. Last week, Whitmer said in a letter to the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services that she planned to ask the Legislature to revise the law.
What Whitmer said: Whitmer pledged to protect Healthy Michigan, citing the letter. She also offered a shout out to new Attorney General Dana Nessel, a fellow Democrat, for joining Michigan in lawsuits to protect the ACA law at the federal level. Whitmer did not address specific changes she would like to see to the work requirements law.
What Republicans say: Republicans say they sought the work requirements as a way to encourage more people to enter the workforce, especially at a time when many employers’ top concern is finding enough skilled talent to fill open jobs. They also have said they are concerned the Healthy Michigan program has grown so large that it’s not financially sustainable.
Spokespeople for Shirkey and Chatfield said Whitmer has not yet discussed her proposed changes with the legislative leaders. “I’m a little disappointed in her approach,” Shirkey said Tuesday of Whitmer’s efforts to revisit the work law.
The facts: In its 2018 study of state laws, Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBTQ advocacy group, ranked Michigan in the lowest of four categories for LGBTQ protections. The group notes that the state does not prohibit discrimination against gay or transgender people.
That has some political history: Former Attorney General Bill Schuette issued an opinion last year that determined Michigan civil rights law does not protect people from discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. The state Civil Rights Commission ignored that decision and continued to investigate LGBTQ complaints. Last month, it asked new Nessel to review that opinion.
What Whitmer said: Whitmer asked the Legislature to expand the state’s civil rights act to definitively include protections for LGBTQ people, arguing the change would bring both social justice and economic benefits.
“No one should get fired because of who they are or who they love,” she said, offering her executive directive expanding protections for LGBTQ people within her administration as an example. “And it’ll help build and attract a talented, top-notch workforce in state government.”
What Republicans say: Chatfield has said he has no intention of holding a vote on LGBTQ rights legislation this term, calling it “reverse discrimination” against religious communities and questioning whether discrimination against LGBTQ people is as pervasive as advocates say it is. Shirkey similarly told the Detroit News that changes to the state civil rights law aren’t going to be a high priority unless “we can include protections for religious freedom in the Constitution.”
On Tuesday, Chatfield told reporters: “I’ve been very clear on that issue: I’ll never pass a bill or vote for a bill that I believe infringes on someone’s sincerely held religious beliefs.” Shirkey said the Senate has no plans to take it up.
The facts: Little has changed since the Center for Public Integrity ranked Michigan worst in the nation for transparency in a 2015 study. Legislators and high ranking public officials are not required to file asset disclosure forms, there’s no restriction on retired legislators joining the lobbying corps, and both the legislature and the governor’s office are exempt from the Freedom of Information Act.
What Whitmer said: Whitmer pledged to expand FOIA to her office and the Legislature during her successful 2018 campaign. Whitmer signed an executive directive earlier this month to speed up the executive branch’s response to FOIA requests, but did not immediately open her own office to public records requests. She said then she would prefer FOIA expansion to be put into law rather than through executive directive. She reiterated this request during her speech Tuesday night: “We have the power to fix (the state’s low transparency rating.) Let’s expand FOIA to my office and to the Legislature. It’s time to ensure that the sun shines equally on every branch of state government.”
What Republicans have said: Chatfield sponsored legislation to extend FOIA to the Legislature and governor’s office last session which passed unanimously in the House, though it went on to die in the Senate. Similar legislation was introduced this session, and Chatfield told Bridge he’s still supportive of the change. Shirkey, however, has said the package requires more study and warned against “unintentional negative consequences.”
Related Gov. Gretchen Whitmer stories:
- Whitmer changes course, blocks $10M grant that helps former GOP chair
- Pro-Whitmer group broke Michigan campaign finance laws, Benson finds
- Opinion | Gretchen Whitmer is smart to keep Michigan PFAS response team
- Michigan Senate debates reversing Gov. Whitmer’s environmental overhaul
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- Budget tests Gretchen Whitmer’s promise to repeal Michigan pension tax
- Gretchen Whitmer reshapes Michigan environmental watchdog agency