Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gretchen Whitmer has big plans for Michigan – and they’ll cost a pretty penny.
The former Senate minority leader from East Lansing promises to repeal the pension tax, replace lead water lines statewide, pay for two years of debt-free college to all residents (as well as universal pre-K) and, of course, fix “the damn roads.”
Questions have arisen about how she’d pay for it all, and Whitmer outlined her funding plans during a one-hour interview this week with Bridge Magazine and its partners at the Detroit Journalism Cooperative.
Whitmer said much of her funding relies on savings, growing the economy or adding user fees. All told, her plan would increase state spending by $2.7 billion, or about 10 percent, and Bridge analysis has found some of her funding sources are far from sure things.
During the interview, Whitmer repeated her commitment to protecting the environment and increasing funding for schools, while taking shots at her Republican opponent in the Nov. 6 election, Attorney General Bill Schuette.
Earlier this month, Schuette discussed his plans with the Detroit Journalism Cooperative, which also includes Detroit Public Television, Michigan Radio, WDET Detroit Radio, New Michigan Media and Chalkbeat Detroit.
Whitmer also sat down for an interview with the DJC before the August primary.
What follows is a transcript of Whitmer’s latest interview. Any grammatical and spelling errors are those of the transcription service.
Jerome Vaughn, WDET: We'd like to welcome Gretchen Whitmer, Democratic candidate for governor. Thank you so much for participating in our gubernatorial candidate interviews, I'm Jerome Vaughn from WDET. In the room today and asking the questions are members of the Detroit journalism cooperative. The DJC is made up of six media outlets including Detroit Public Television, Bridge Magazine, Michigan Radio, Chalkbeat Detroit, New Michigan Media and of course WDET. We'd also like to thank the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation for their support of this project. Today's panel includes starting to my left Koby Levin from Chalkbeat Detroit, Riley Beggin from Bridge Magazine, Ed Moore from Detroit Public Television and Tracy Samilton from Michigan Radio. So for the next hour each journalist will ask a series of questions and we'll follow up on your answers if they need more details. I'll give us a 30 minute time reminder so that we can stay on track.
Koby Levin, Chalkbeat: Ms. Whitmer, polling in Michigan finds widespread support for changing the way our state funds its schools. You've previously said that schools with more low income students should get more funding. Where does that stand on your list of priorities for education policy?
Gretchen Whitmer: Very high. And I think when it comes to education we've got a lot of work to do. I've got kids in the public schools in East Lansing and while their teachers do an amazing job I was just at conferences last week. I'm really proud of my kids but I know that our schools have been short changed when it comes to being a priority in the Michigan state budget. The fact of the matter is about $3.5 billion dollars has been siphoned out of the school aid fund to backfill holes in the general fund and we're paying a dear price for that. Michigan you say had the best public education system in the world and now we're in the bottom 10 in our own country which means we're failing generations of kids and we're really compromising our ability to make sure we've got the concentration of talent that drives an economy that we've got the schools that support families that families will move to for opportunity again. So as I look at what we're doing in education there are some fundamentals we've got to get right. Number One, we need to stop the raid on the school aid fund make sure that those dollars stay in the education of our kids. Number Two, I do think that it is time to commission a group to look at long term funding solutions for the spur for our schools. Number Three, to wrap our youngest kids around with the supports they need tripling the number of literacy coaches, for instance. That's how we change what's happening in our schools. Universal early childhood education is another fundamental part of of my plan to take us from bottom 10 to top 10 in this country. We've got to work together to get it done.
Koby Levin: So there have been numerous reports actually in recent years outlining experts’ plans for changing the funding system. One of those came from the School Finance Research Collaborative which laid out specifics. Here's how much additional funding a school should get for every child with disabilities for instance. Can you support the findings of for instance the School Finance Research Collaborative?
Gretchen Whitmer: So that was created as a result of years and years of lack of investment right the adequacy study says that we are underfunding the education of every child in Michigan to the tune of thousands of dollars each child. And to complicate matters what we know is that a child in a high poverty district costs more to educate. That's just fact. So the same child in a wealthy district costs less to educate than than if you've got that child in a high poverty district and that's why I really support the weighted foundational loans so that as we infuse greater resources into education that we're really making sure we're making the investment necessary to pull kids up in high poverty districts.
Koby Levin: And can you get on board with the numbers laid out by the School Finance Research collaborative?
Gretchen Whitmer: I believe those numbers to be accurate. To meet that need is going to be a challenge and that's something that I am dedicated to meeting that need. Now it's going to take collaborating, building a coalition from business to parents to educators to make sure that we get it done ... and I've got to have a Legislature that will work with me so that we can deliver on that. It could be a Republican controlled Legislature could be Democratic control. We won't know until after Nov. 6. But here's what I know. Partisan politics is hurting our ability to educate our kids. Public education is one of those budgets in other states that Democrats and Republicans can find common ground on because it's a education of our kids and kids aren't Democrats or Republicans. They're kids. And every child has what I think is a birthright to a great education. And so we've got to build the coalition in order to make this a priority and that's something that I'm absolutely dedicated to doing that just for my kids but for every child in the state of Michigan.
Koby Levin: Thank you.
Riley Beggin, Bridge Magazine: An investigation by Chalkbeat and Bridge found that roughly 1 in 3 Detroit elementary school students change schools every year often because parents are looking for better options. Most of the students who change schools did not move to a different zip code. Is there anything state government could do to reduce the negative impact of student churn?
Gretchen Whitmer: So well to make sure they've got good schools they wouldn't keep looking if they had great schools good choices. People want to talk about education choices as though that in and of itself is the solution. But there's no real choice if you don't have any good options, right? And choice is only a real choice if you have the means and the resources to pursue different school districts. I say, ‘Let's stop that mindset. Let's raise up our school districts let's make sure that we make the investment that we hold schools accountable that we shut down schools, particularly for profit charter schools that are not delivering good results.’ We do have to have a Detroit-specific strategy. The governor and his Republican Legislature failed at giving some real comprehensive oversight to what's happening in the city of Detroit. I want to be a partner to (Detroit Superintendent Nikolai) Vitti, to Mayor Duggan, to Detroit families to make sure that we don't have schools that are just putting money in their pocket and not delivering good results for our kids.
Riley Beggin: You've talked a little bit about investing in schools and improving quality. Can you talk about you know where the money comes from for that sort of investment?
Gretchen Whitmer: So you know, I think that first and foremost if we stop the raids on the school aid fund, like we were just chatting about. That's $800 million dollars annually right there. Looking at how we are funding schools. We have an an old formula that has never really been analyzed to see has it met the goals. I think we owe it to the taxpayers. But more importantly to the students in our districts to to analyze is this working did we meet our goals. Where are we short. What should it really look like.
Gretchen Whitmer: You know, when I was in the Legislature I introduced a package of bills that would have made a greater investment in in higher education for students in Michigan and I paid for it by closing loopholes and on the expenditure side of the state budget. This is the side of tax breaks that never get analyzed whether or not they're meeting our public need. They're meeting their goals. If we just found you know a little savings there you could fund all of this but we've not done it. And we owe it to the taxpayers to go back and say does this favorable treatment under the law make sense anymore. And if it doesn't well then let's close that loophole and use it to invest in things like the education of our people closing the skills gap making sure that everyone has got a real path that lead them to a high wage job because this is what business tells us over and over again. This is why Amazon, one of the things they listed is why they didn't come to Michigan, this is what vexes us as a state is the talent gap and that's what we've got to mean and it starts with education.
Riley Beggin: Do you have a specific loophole in mind that might be a good one to eliminate?
Gretchen Whitmer: The way that I want to do it is by convening Republicans and Democrats and economists looking at the policy that is on there and make recommendations. It’s not for me to say, you're going to win you're going to lose. I want experts to sit down and work together and make a recommendation. How can we make this investment. What doesn't make sense anymore. Let's not have the politics ruin it from the get-go. Let's really do the work and get it right.
Ed Moore, Detroit Public Television: Ms. Whitmer you've said you'd like to change the way charter schools are governed in Michigan and perhaps by even forbidding for profit companies from managing the schools. But nonprofit schools are struggling as well. As matter of fact Delta Prep in Detroit just closed just a few weeks ago. And to the surprise of the teachers and to a lot of the families that were going to that school. How specifically do you propose to change charter school regulations?
Gretchen Whitmer: So we need to have real accountability in schools across Michigan. You know, I have mentioned for profit charter schools and I do that because while there are for profit charter schools across the country, we are way way out of the norm. I mean with over 80 percent of ours are for profit which puts us very different than the rest of the country. The problem is it's not the for profit or not for profit model. It's the fact that charter schools are not having better outcomes than traditional public schools and when their motive is profit then they shouldn't be in the business of making money and not educating our kids. That's what I have as a parent, as someone who's raised by a public school teacher and my grandfather was a superintendent in Pontiac schools, my grandma taught in Waterford. I mean, that's what I find so offensive, that we've got companies that are profiting off of not educating our kids and that's what I what I'm focused on but in terms of making sure that charters are meeting our expectations we’ve got to hold them to the same standards that we hold our traditional public schools. And if they're not making it they shouldn't be making money off of not educating our kids.
Ed Moore: So do you have some ideas as to how you would change the actual way that that we're legislating charter schools?
Gretchen Whitmer: I do. And we've we've put a pretty comprehensive policy out there but it starts with transparency real accountability having teachers that meet the state expectations for public schools. I think that all of these are pieces to it. But also closing off their ability to rent property, the facilities to themselves I think that they've really written into the law ways that they're able to put more money in their bottom line and and we're paying for it, our kids are.
Ed Moore: Now supposing the Legislature remains Republican after the election. How would you work with them to change the way charter schools are run?
Gretchen Whitmer: I've served with three different governors during my time in the Legislature and I can tell you that understanding how to work with the Legislature is something that is really, really critical to getting an agenda done. Having served myself I was very successful at crossing the aisle in order to build relationships and to deliver results. The Medicaid expansion never would have happened if Gov. Snyder and I didn't find some common ground and work really well together. I'm proud of that. But same goes for Detroit lighting or for the anti-bullying protections that we got passed and signed into law. I think that we need a governor who is able to build coalitions and work with everyone who wants to solve problems. One of the things that happened during this campaign last week, we had Bernie Sanders come in for me and the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce endorsed me. Two ends of the spectrum, both of whom are trying to help me because I think they recognize that when we need bipartisan solutions, at least this is what the Chamber said, I stepped up and I helped and I made sure we got things done. And I think that's going to be crucial whether it's in the education space or in infrastructure. We need a governor who can build relationships and coalitions and fix problems.
Tracy Samilton, Michigan Radio: So you've proposed a system that would give Michigan students two years of debt-free community college and I have to say that sounds pretty good to me. I have a son and that's one of the ways I'm planning to get him a college education starting out with community college. But how how will we pay for this?
Whitmer: So just doing this piece of my economic plan the My Opportunity scholarship, which is a two year, debt-free community college opportunity for every student who wants to pursue it. It's about $100 million; $100 million is in a $56 billion budget, it's not that great of an investment and it's one that really has an impact on making it available for kids to pursue a career a trade a path or skill set that will lead to a high wage job. We have good jobs in the state that are going unfilled because we don't have the skills. I've met a young man in Grand Rapids who really wants to be an electrician. Right now, he's a dishwasher at a restaurant and he's paying most the bills in his household. He's a teenager and he's paid most of the bills. He wants to become an electrician but he doesn't have the $6,000 he needs in order to pursue it at the community college locally. $6,000 standing in the way of this young man who's hard working who heads his household and wants to go on a career that we desperately need people to pursue. And that's why I think just you know this $100 million investment has enormous potential return. And we're going to improve people's lives but get more people working in jobs that are going unfilled right now. It is the kind of small investment you know when you look at compared to the whole state budget that can really make a big difference for people's lives.
Jerome Vaughn: We're going to move on to roads now. It's one of the issues that Michigan residents have talked about a lot during this campaign. They have complained about a lot for years. What's your plan to fix the roads in the state and how are we going to pay for it?
Gretchen Whitmer: Yes, so when I jumped on this race 22 months ago I never dreamed I would be known as the ‘fix the damn roads lady,’ but that's what I've become known as. Everywhere I go people want to talk to me about it. A few people don't like the word damn but most give me a high five and say ‘I need you to fix those roads.’ The saying was coined because I had a conversation with two moms and I said, ‘what is the most important issue to you?’ One of them talked about literacy the other talked about drinking water, they are from Flint but both the moms said I need you to fix the roads. But they said ‘fix the damn roads.’ The one mom spent $800 to fix her car after hitting a pothole. That was money that she was not expecting to spend. It was not money she could just put on a credit card or write a check. Big hit to her household income. Thats money out of rent or money out of child care. Our lack of fixing the roads is costing Michigan families out of our pocketbook but also it's endangering our safety. The fact of the matter is we are all paying for bad roads, we're paying a road tax, its just in the form of fixing tires and windshields instead of fixing the problem. Which gets more and more expensive every year we don't do. It's compromising our ability to draw investment into Michigan and our ability to maintain our edge and mobility. How can you to tell the world we are the place to build cars of the future when our roads look like they're crumbling. So I'm leading with an infrastructure package, it is a $2 billion dollar state investment that draws down another billion from the federal government. Runs all through the rebuild Michigan infrastructure bank so that taxpayers know every dollar is actually going where it's supposed to go because understandably people don't trust the capital people in Lansing to put the money where is supposed to be going. If I can't get the Legislature, if they're too weak to take these votes, votes that I took when I was in the Legislature, then I'll go straight to the people and pass a bond because not fixing this is not an option. It is downright dangerous and we’ve got to get to work and get it done.
Jerome Vaughn: So if you got to that stage and and the bonds were approved by residents how would you repay that debt?
Gretchen Whitmer: Well, we've got a great plan it's all on our website but paying off the bond debt is a few hundred million dollars a year. And that's a lot of money. There's no question. But we've got tax credits that are sunsetting that could cover that. We've got the assumed growth, we've got the internet sales tax, that is now coming in another $250 million a year. So there are pieces to get this done, doing the bond is the is the alternative. If I can't get the Legislature to do the user fees that I think it's going to take to get it done.
Jerome Vaughn: Several studies show Michigan roads and bridges are in poor condition. We've heard for years that fixes are coming and that's been not only through the Snyder administration but you can go back through Granholm and Engler and Blanchard. Will it take some catastrophe like the bridge collapse in Minneapolis back in 2007 to really make significant improvements?
Gretchen Whitmer: I hope not. That's not what it takes for me to do the right thing. I mean that's why I'm leading on an infrastructure package. My infrastructure package also would cover replacing the lead pipes that are bringing water into our homes. When we tear up a road we'll use that as an opportunity to lay the conduit to get every community connected to a high speed broadband. There are ways we can do this work and do it smart so that it works to our benefit on so many different fronts. But it's not going to be easy and it's not going to happen overnight. I hope it doesn't take a catastrophe. But let me tell you a story. I was talking to a woman from Ann Arbor the other day, she had an aneurysm. And the ambulance took a route that added 10 minutes to the commute because they didn't want to go over the shortest route that was pothole ridden. It would have endangered her to take the shortest route to the hospital in the midst of having an aneurysm. There are buses full of school kids that are driving to school over bridges that have temporary supports holding them up. We are at that point where we've got to do the work or it could we could have a catastrophe. And I don't think anyone wants to see that. I certainly don't want to see that. I want us to start getting the job done now before that happens.
PFAS and water
Koby Levin: Michigan's so-called Polluters Pay law was modified in 1994 to allow for partial cleanups of contamination. We now have numerous sites across the state where contaminants like PFAS, dioxane and vinyl chloride have been partially cleaned up. Do you think that our cleanup system needs to be tightened up, perhaps even to go back to the standard of full cleanups?
Gretchen Whitmer: Absolutely. You know we are home to 21 percent of the world's freshwater in and around our borders. This is an enormous asset but it's also an enormous responsibility that we've not taken seriously. As governor I want to shut down corporate threats to our water. I want to clean up our drinking water. When we see Gov. Snyder ask Bill Schuette to file a lawsuit to go after 3M on PFAS. He asked him to do that back in July. They still haven't done it. We've got dozens of communities that have higher lead in their water than Flint does today because of old infrastructure. But there are dozens more that have PFAS contamination leaching into their drinking water. This is a crisis. This is not something that we can just hope will get better with time. This three tablespoons of PFAS in an Olympic size swimming pool. That's poison. You know that's what we're talking about. It doesn't take much of this chemical to cause cancer to autoimmune diseases. I mean this is happening in over 15 counties right now in Michigan. And so as you talk to the League of Conservation Voters or the Sierra Club or Clean Water Action they will tell you we have only seen the tip of the iceberg when it comes to PFAS and that's why we need to get serious about holding corporate polluters accountable. Get to work cleaning up identifying where all of the problems are and make Michigan a place where we utilize these great research universities, this enormous resource and make this a place where people learn about water stewardship not a laughing stock.
Koby Levin: Would you take steps to try to ensure legislatively that a full cleanup is required at every polluted site?
Gretchen Whitmer: You know, I'm going to hire the finest environmentalist scientist to run the department and tell me what the best steps are to get moving on this. I've talked to enough experts to know that we've only seen the tip of the iceberg on this and I think that's why we've got to have a much longer-term strategy instead of going and asking the term limited Legislature to help figure out what the solution is. Certainly, we're going to work together to do it. But I'm going to rely on scientists to examine what the the magnitude of the problem is and recommend what the best quickest way we can proceed to get it cleaned up as.
Riley Beggin: Most environmental groups want Line 5 shut down. But Gov. Snyder's reached an agreement with Enbridge to build a tunnel replacing the line under the Straits of Mackinac. He says it's necessary to supply Northern Michigan residents with propane. I know you've pledged to work to revoke Enbridge’s easement with the state. How would you convince the courts that Michigan has grounds to do so? And then how would you ensure people in the U.P. still have access to affordable fuel?
Gretchen Whitmer: I think the governor's recent announcement with regard to Line 5 is very troubling. Number One, he's tying the hands of the next governor. Number Two, it counts on trusting a company that has shown we have a lot of reasons not to trust them, right, from the representation they've made to the bad studies they've made to their characterization of the condition of Line 5. Wrong wrong wrong. And now to trust this company to proceed and to give them the authority is I think it's really foolish and dangerous. So I do not support Gov. Snyder's announcement that he made. I think it's wrong to tie the hands of the next governor. I believe that committing to keeping that line in the water for the next seven to 10 years while tunnel is being built is downright dangerous. And so I will go to court, I will challenge it. We have yet to know every aspect to what he's trying to do. There is a meeting from the (Mackinac) Bridge Authority two days after the election. They're supposed to make some sort of a decision in December. And I've talked to Bridge Authority members who didn't hear anything about it until it came out in the press. This is a problem and the transparency and the high stakes I think are what are lack of transparency in the high stakes here what I think concerned me the most. I couldn't believe it when I saw that this was what they were announcing. And I think we have yet to learn every piece of it. And that's why what the legal challenge is going to be I think remains to be seen based on what action they do or don't do.
Riley Beggin: It sounds like the end goal eventually right would be to shut down Line 5? That would be your preference?
Gretchen Whitmer: I want the oil out of the water.
Riley Beggin: OK. So if that's the case how would you ensure people in the U.P. still have access to affordable fuel?
Gretchen Whitmer: Well, I think that there are alternatives. You know obviously I'm interested in ensuring that Yoopers have affordable heat, affordable propane. That's something that's critical. There are such divergent statistics about how much is actually coming from that line to actually bring down prices. It could be supplemented by some trucks over the bridge, that’s not ideal but it might be a good alternative. You know, one boatful could could allay that those concerns as well. So there are positives and negatives to any alternative but I think the greatest benefit is getting the vast majority of that product out of the water because it would devastate our economy, it would devastate our agriculture, tourism and drinking water in the state of Michigan. We bear all of the risk for a foreign company to just move their product through and it's ridiculous. We've got to shut it down.
Riley Beggin: Thanks.
Flint and lead in water
Ed Moore: The state of Michigan is currently involved in two lawsuits. One seeking to protect the state from paying damages to people in Flint for educational assistance for children affected by lead tainted water. The other for damages to people for things like declines in property value. Now as governor what could you or what will you be able to do regarding the state's legal stance in these lawsuits?
Gretchen Whitmer: Well, I think that's a good question. I think it's also going to depend on who the attorney general is. We're going to need to work together to make sure that the people of Flint get justice. I believe that needs to be the centerpiece and the goal. The people of Flint were failed in the worst way by their government at every level. So many their biggest asset is their home which is now hard to sell, if you could sell it at all. I was in Flint couple months ago and a woman pulled up her sleeve and showed me this rash all up and down her arm from taking a shower that morning before church. Now she didn't think that it was lead but it was all the chemicals that are treating that that she's reacted to. You know she can't bathe the way that she used to in the home that she's lived in that is her only asset now and is not worth a whole lot. So I do think that the people of Flint deserve justice. I think that it's going to be incumbent on me as the governor to work with the home owners and to work with the attorney general and to of course work with the budget to see what that looks like and what is just and what is doable.
Ed Moore: Now Flint isn't the only municipality in the state struggling with lead contamination obviously with its drinking water. What should the state's role be moving forward to deal with issues of water safety or finances that contributed to these problems?
Gretchen Whitmer: So the Emergency Management Act was the precursor to everything that happened in Flint and it was something that I opposed when I was in the Legislature. It had passed anyway and then we the people rejected it at the ballot and then the Republicans used a gimmick of state government to render the people's right of referendum useless. They put some money in it and made it an appropriations bill and so we the people had no ability to weigh in again. So they didn't respect the will of the people. They forged ahead and they put hand picked people from outside the community to make decisions based on dollars and cents. That's what the whole precursor was. It has created the most horrifying outcomes for people. Fact of the matter is that as governor I want to make sure that I work with the mayor of Flint with Dr. Mona to ensure that we expedite replacement of the pipes, that we replace bottled water that the kids of Flint have wraparound services. But Flint’s not the only part of this state that can’t drink their water coming out of their tap right now. That was a man-made crisis. The rest is by neglect it is because of old pipes. And so that's why part of my infrastructure package is fixing the roads and bridges but also replacing the the lead pipe infrastructure under the ground so that municipalities can make use of this rebuild Michigan infrastructure bank and get to work doing it.
Ed Moore: Where does the money come from replacing all the pipes. Because I think you're going to have Detroit to replace. We're going have a lot of other communities replace as well.
Gretchen Whitmer: That part of the rebuild the roads package, it's the $3 billion annually for 20 years. I mean that's how municipalities will be able to make use of that that bank and those dollars and to you know leverage some local dollars as well in the process and get to work.
Jerome Vaughn: A quick follow-up to that. So is that amount of money going to be enough to do roads and pipes and other important infrastructure?
Gretchen Whitmer: Yes, annually, absolutely. And the you know if you look at the governors own commission they pegged it between 3 and 4 (billion). I wrote a plan that does 3 and that I think is part of this part of the calculation here is that we've got to have people who do the work and with our skills gap that's going to be a hard thing as well even if we could front load all of the dollars in one fell swoop. We wouldn't be able to do the work just the the manpower and the skill alone would be a problem for us. And so we are going to have to skill up as well and I think that’s a big piece of this conversation that I think we've got to meet as a state to close that skills gap.
Tracy Samilton: We just had a very alarming report on climate change from the U.N. which indicated we are not going fast enough or not doing enough. We need to go far beyond Paris, here in this state we have a commitment from DTE Energy and Consumers Energy to lower their emissions by 80 percent by the year 2040, 2050, but what we're hearing from the U.N. is this is not going to be enough if we're going to do our part. So what do you think Michigan needs to do?
Whitmer: Well, we have to get we have to get more aggressive. There's no question: 2018 was one of the hottest years on record. I think about you know where we are as a state and how important it's going to be that yes we enter Michigan into the UN climate alliance. But with that we get much more aggressive in terms of growing our renewable portfolio so that we can lower greenhouse gases and emissions. To do that when we do that we benefit our economy too. Right. High tech workers are required of green energy to build the windmills and we should be building every part of a turbine here in the state of Michigan. Solar panels, these are advanced manufacturing things we can do and when you pursue this more aggressive renewable energy portfolio you necessarily use less freshwater because it you know requires much less freshwater to produce than fossil fuel energy does. And so there are a lot of benefits to moving forward. But I think that as we address climate change it's really important to acknowledge it's real. There are a lot of people who still don't think it's real, who think it's unsettled science. My opponent in this race for governor filed legal document on our behalf with our tax dollars that essentially agrees that says that climate change is unsettled science. That kind of mindset is never going to get us to a place where we're addressing it and thinking about future generations on this planet. And that's something that I think is fundamental. I want a cabinet full of people that are experts in their field that are representative of the diversity of this state. They have geographic the religious the racial diversity of the state. I want empowered people with different perspectives and expertise sitting around the table making decisions so that we never have a decision like switching to the Flint River again without the important voice of the people who are being impacted by it.
Economy and taxes
Koby Levin: Michigan's economy has grown over the last few years and we have a fairly low unemployment rate, but the poverty rate is still fairly high. What would you do to ensure that low income Michiganders are not left behind by the growth in the state?
Gretchen Whitmer: Well thanks, I appreciate this question you know and low unemployment rate means very little if people aren't coming out of poverty, if home ownership is down, if income hasn't grown at all. And that's the case for a lot of Michigan families. We’re never going to address our needs as a state if we turn away from too many families living in poverty. And that's why I support increasing the minimum wage. That's why I support making sure that our families and our people have affordable housing and the opportunity to get the skills they need and then a way to get the good jobs that pay them right from improving transit in Michigan to fixing the roads or making car insurance affordable. These are all pieces of how do you get to work and get out of the cycle of poverty and so the skills piece I think is the most fundamental whether you're talking to business people or heads of household. It starts from cradle to career that we've got to have this mindset that we're going to ensure that every one of us has the skills we need to get into the high wage jobs. You start with universal early childhood education, you go through the My Opportunity scholarship at the end of graduation. There is opportunity within our state's borders. We've got to connect people to skills and make sure everyone's got affordable housing options. That's what I hear from Traverse City to Detroit. This is something that motivates me to want to put MSHDA to work and make sure that we're getting resources into actually ensuring people have affordable housing options.
Riley Beggin: You said you'd like to get rid of the pension tax but there's no question that Michigan is much more of a retiree state than it was in the past. And the population of younger tax-paying citizens is shrinking instead of growing. If the pension tax is repealed how would you replace it?
Gretchen Whitmer: I want to talk about why I want to get rid of the pension tax. You know Gov. Snyder introduced the pension tax in his first year. That was what he was using to pay for business tax breaks. He cut education, tried to eliminate the Earned Income Tax Credit for the working poor and he started taxing pensions. That’s all he paid for that pretty much dollar for dollar. It's a choice that he made. Here's what I know. There are a lot of people in our state that worked their whole lives. They played by the rules. They worked hard. They took a lower salary while they were working because they knew the benefit the deferred compensation was going to be a pension at the end of their work life. They played by the rules. They did the calculation, they retired when they retired and then the state came in and changed the rules and threw a lot of seniors into a precarious situation where they couldn't make their bills. A lot of people are in dire straits because of this. I think it's wrong to change the rules on someone at the end of their career, at 80 years old you're not going to go back and start fighting fires again. Right. These are people that need relief and it's something that I oppose when the governor pushed it through. It is something that I will sign into law the repeal of it when it gets to my desk. And I know it's coming because Republicans and Democrats alike want to get rid of the pension tax.
So how do we pay for it is the question right? It's $250 to 300 million is what I believe the price tag is and the price tag gets lower and lower because fewer and fewer people are going to have pensions so it necessarily declines with time. But it's something that I think is a priority. No question, it was wrong to do it in the first place and it's something that that I'm committed to to repealing. I told you about the Internet tax that's coming on line, I told you about growth that's anticipated, I told you about closing loopholes. There are ways to make sure that our priorities are right and it starts with get rid of the pension tax.
Ed Moore: Is one of those ways possibly repealing the corporate tax cuts that Snyder introduced back in 2008 that caused a $2 billion drop in revenue during that period?
Gretchen Whitmer: I've not put that on the table.
Tracy Samilton: I'd like you to talk about the the impact of state budget cuts on municipalities. It's caused a lot of budget problems with the revenue sharing going down. It's played a role in emergency takeovers. Given the current budget is there anything that can be done to increase revenue sharing to meet up municipalities?
Gretchen Whitmer: So you know as the legislator who worked the state budget, I understand the importance of revenue sharing and how critical it is to communities, municipalities and in their provision of frontline service like Fire Service and police protection. I think we've got some serious issues to tackle immediately but I recognize how important revenue sharing is and that's something that I'm eager to work with partners like Mayor (Mike) Duggan to Mayor (Andy) Schor in Lansing to Mayor (Rosalynn) Bliss in Grand Rapids to put together a real long term solution on revenue sharing. My call to action first and foremost it to make sure everyone's got clean drinking water and safe roads to travel to close the skills gap. These are the fundamentals that I'm going to spend all my energy on, on day one. But this is an important issue that I think we've got to have a long term strategy with our leaders of municipalities and we're going to get that started on Day One.
Jerome Vaughn: Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan is one of many people talking about how high auto insurance rates are in Michigan, especially in urban areas. What would you propose to address the issue?
Gretchen Whitmer: So yeah I talk to people all across the state. I mean Detroiters without question feel it the worst. But auto insurance rates come up everywhere that I go. People look more at the costs of their insurance before they even look at the car note. That's how out of whack it is especially for Detroiters so one of the things that I know is in the first six months of next year we're going to put together a plan, pull all the stakeholders to the table and get it through the Legislature. A plan that protects people that are tragically injured in a car accident but also requires that insurers treat ratepayers fairly, that they pay their bills on time, that there is transparency and they can't decide rates based on non-driving factors.
This discriminatory practice of redlining means that people with bad credit ratings or people that live in certain ZIP Codes or people’s marital status or their educational. These are factors that are used against ratepayers and are having a discriminatory impact and they have nothing to do with your driving record and should not be used against you. The insurance industry had written all of the rules and they're making money hand over fist. And we the people are paying. We're paying paying paying, it's coming out of rent and groceries. And that's why it's critical that we get it done and give people relief in this state.
Jerome Vaughn: Do you put all the responsibility for that on the insurance industry or does the healthcare industry or do attorneys have any responsibility for the problem as well?
Gretchen Whitmer: I'm so glad you asked the follow up because I forgot to talk about fraud right there are I think we have a responsibility to make sure that we get rid of you know take abuse and fraud out of the system. So without question there is fraud. We've got a duty to make sure that we eliminate it and it swings both sides. So that means any unscrupulous charges, any unscrupulous lawyering and any unscrupulous insurance practices. We need to have a real consumer protection advocate at the executive level and that's going to be the insurance commissioner that I appoint and hopefully in conjunction with the attorney general that will get elected Nov. 6 as well.
Koby Levin: With the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh onto the U.S. Supreme Court. there is a greater likelihood that Roe v. Wade might be overturned. You've said you'd protect a woman's right to choose, but what legislation would you propose specifically to ensure that Michiganders have access to abortions?
Gretchen Whitmer: Yes, so you know this is a right to control my own body and make my own choices. Something that has always been a part of how I viewed myself as a Michigander as an American that this was a right that was enshrined. Now it is in jeopardy and as the mom of two daughters I want to make sure that my kids have this same right that every woman in Michigan and in the United States has that right as well. If Kavanaugh and the Supreme Court throw out Roe v. Wade, then we here in Michigan revert to a 1931 law that criminalizes abortion that would render family planning doctors felons. So we need to change the law.
That's something that I'm going to spearhead enshrining the spirit of Roe v. Wade in state statute as a right for every Michigan woman and her family to also move forward and ensure that there is access to contraceptive care that we fund family planning organizations that women have the full rights that we have right now under the law that that would be protected here in Michigan. Other states have taken those steps. We in Michigan need to do that. And if we don't it is going to absolutely hurt our ability to be competitive to make sure that this is a place where our young people and others come to for opportunity, again because I would be very understanding if my kids my daughters didn't want to come back to Michigan because they wouldn't have the same set of rights that they would have in other states. So this is not just about being having full rights as an American as all the freedoms of being a human being on this planet but also our competitive ability here in Michigan.
Riley Beggin: What's your plan for dealing with Michigan's escalating opioid crisis?
Gretchen Whitmer: So one of the plans that I've put out is a six point plan when it comes to the opioid crisis. First, we need to declare a state of emergency that enables us to marshal the resources necessary to create a real time statewide monitoring system for prescription writing. I read a statistic that we have 11 million prescriptions for opioids in Michigan. We have 10 million people. So we're way over-prescribed and there's not is a regular statewide database that has been used like they have in other states. We also need to recognize that addiction is not a moral failing. It is a disease and we need to make sure that people that are suffering from the disease have the support they need to to combat it to manage it whether it is through the mental health support or the addiction recovery support. These are critical components as well.
Jerome Vaughn: That's all the time we have. We want to say thank you on behalf of all the members of the Detroit journalism collaborative here. Thank you for taking the time to join us.
Gretchen Whitmer: Thank you. Thank you for the work that you all do.
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