A new Democratic governor campaigned to “fix the damn roads.”
Her party’s colleagues in the Legislature say they agree that infrastructure, including roads and clean drinking water, is a top priority in the new legislative term that starts this month.
And they view their midterm election gains — Democrats picked up a net five seats in the state House and Senate — and the slimmer Republican majorities that resulted as a prime opportunity to work across the aisle to accomplish big policy changes.
Here’s what new Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich and House Democratic Leader Christine Greig say they want to focus on this year.
Gretchen Whitmer, governor
Top priorities: Fixing the roads, improving Michigan’s water quality, closing the skills gap by improving education outcomes
On roads: Whitmer, a Democrat from East Lansing, told Bridge she intends to deliver on her signature campaign promise to “fix the damn roads.”
While she said she will work with the Republican-majority Legislature to improve the condition of Michigan’s deteriorating roads, Whitmer also vowed “to use every lever of power that I have in the office to deliver on fixing the roads.”
She outlined her plan during her campaign for governor, which centers on a state infrastructure bank infused with $2 billion in state tax dollars to help pay for repairs and leverage additional money from the federal government. She has not specifically said how she would raise the $2 billion per year, on top of current funding levels, but has said that she would ask the Legislature to raise road user fees or ask statewide voters to approve a bond.
Whitmer said her first State of the State address and first budget proposal, both expected to be unveiled within roughly the first two months of her term, is “where our real opportunity’s going to be to unveil the road and the infrastructure plan.”
On water quality: Fear of contaminated drinking water is as real in rural areas dealing with PFAS chemicals as it is in Detroit’s public schools, Whitmer told Bridge in a recent interview, adding that the need for safe, clean drinking water is not a partisan issue. Whitmer also has called for lead pipe replacement in the wake of the Flint drinking water crisis.
Whitmer has said her proposed infrastructure bank could help pay for replacement of lead pipes for drinking water. And she also wants to create a Department of Great Lakes and Freshwater to focus on clean water policies. Her proposal includes staffing the department with a water ombudsman to handle drinking water complaints.
Threats to Michigan drinking water include PFAS, but Whitmer said she would seek evaluations from scientists before deciding on a strategy. PFAS describes chemicals that were used in waterproofing and other materials that have been shown to cause health problems, though research is still emerging on the extent of the problem.
On education: Whitmer’s top goals are to expand preschool programs to all 4-year-olds in the state and to increase the focus on K-12 literacy.
She also has called for ending the transfer of money from the School Aid Fund, which primarily funds K-12 schools, to plug holes in the general fund, as well as moving funding for community colleges and public universities out of the School Aid Fund back to the general fund.
Whitmer’s plan includes increasing the number of literacy coaches and support staffers in schools. She has said she believes the state needs to increase funding equity between the wealthiest and poorest school districts in the state.
Education and the talent gap has become a rallying cry in the business world, and Whitmer sees corporate leaders as allies and advocates in the effort to equip more Michiganders with the skills they need to land high-paying, in-demand jobs.
“They’ve got to buy into it, but they’re seeing now when it doesn’t work they’re paying, too,” she told Bridge. “They’re paying in terms of jobs that are unfilled or a workforce that is continually turning over, or is just too slim.”
On bipartisanship: On the campaign trail, Whitmer often highlighted her role as the Senate Minority Leader in the Legislature to help pass major legislation, from working with then-Republican Gov. Rick Snyder to expand Medicaid to the “grand bargain” that helped Detroit exit bankruptcy.
Whitmer recently told reporters she intends to hold regular meetings with the four legislative leaders from both parties to discuss policy priorities and solutions. Republicans and Democrats alike heard from constituents in their districts that roads are an important issue, she told Bridge.
The issues atop her list resonate around the dinner table of everyday Michiganders as well as the state’s business leaders, she said.
“They rise above partisan divides,” Whitmer said. “That’s why I think there’s an opportunity here.”
Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, said fixing roads, cleaning up drinking water and expanding early childhood education programs are top priorities.
Jim Ananich, Senate minority leader
Bio: Ananich, D-Flint, is serving his second and final term in the Senate after serving two terms in the state House. He serves Flint and parts of Genesee County. Ananich previously worked as a public school teacher. He has advocated for Flint as it recovers from the lead-poisoning crisis created after the city switched drinking water sources in 2014.
Top priorities: Fixing the roads, clean water infrastructure, expanding early childhood education
On roads and water infrastructure: Whitmer ran on fixing the roads, and Ananich said that would create an opportunity right away to develop short- and long-term road plans.
In addition, Ananich said “water’s become something that I’ll work on for the rest of my career.”
That includes not only helping Flint recover from the ongoing lead water crisis, but also addressing problems with toxic chemicals known as PFAS used in nonstick materials and firefighting foam and ensuring people know whether their water is safe.
“We have an infrastructure problem when it comes to our water system where they’re old and outdated, and because it’s under the ground, it’s even less likely to get fixed than the roads,” he said. “I’m going to be pushing to make sure that we address that in a real comprehensive way.”
On education: Ananich said he wants to expand access to early childhood education, citing GOP-led legislation to retain third-graders who can’t read at grade level that does not also include efforts to help students in earlier grades become proficient readers.
Michigan policymakers have expanded access to free preschool for 4-year-olds, partly in response to Bridge reporting that showed thousands of children who qualified for the program couldn’t access it. Ananich pointed to preschool programs in Flint that are serving young children in the wake of the lead-poisoning crisis as an example of an idea that could be replicated, and said he would like the state to offer preschool to 3- and 4-year-olds.
In addition, he said the state should have a serious discussion about funding for K-12 schools and community colleges. The state currently funds the $400 million community college budget from the School Aid Fund, along with another $500 million for public universities.
Whitmer campaigned to end the use of School Aid dollars, which primarily fund K-12 public schools, for higher education. Ananich said he could see a justification for continuing to fund community colleges with school aid dollars if, for instance, the state offered tuition assistance for students pursuing a degree at community colleges.
“We can justify using the School Aid Fund if it’s sort of a pre-K-through-(grade) 14 continuum,” Ananich said. “I’m open to not doing that, but I think it’s a lot more of a logical use of those dollars than the higher ed universities.”
On bipartisanship: Ananich said his priorities — which also include no-fault reform and maintaining the Healthy Michigan Medicaid expansion program — require some bipartisan work. Ananich, who presided over Senate Democrats when they numbered just 11 of 38 last term, will see five new members join his caucus this month. Democrats will shrink the GOP’s majority in the Senate from a supermajority of 27 to a simple majority of 22.
“(Whitmer) is a very pragmatic and practical person who wants to get results,” he said, adding that he and incoming Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, have assured each other they intend to find solutions to policy problems.
“If we go in honestly about it, we can find solutions, and I honestly believe that about him,” Ananich said.
“I’d rather have pie on my face six months from now with a genuine effort to try to get results than to come in saying, ‘I’m going to fight those guys every day,’ because Michigan doesn’t need that.”
House Democratic Leader Christine Greig, D-Farmington Hills, said infrastructure, education and government transparency are among her primary goals for a new legislative term.
Christine Greig, House Democratic leader
Bio: Greig, D-Farmington Hills, is in her third and final term in the House representing Farmington and Farmington Hills. Greig previously co-owned a computer services business and worked as a consultant. She founded the Farmington/Farmington Hills Education Foundation, serving as executive director, and was president of the Farmington Area PTA Council. Greig said her interest in education policy began as an engaged parent of three sons in public schools.
Top priorities: Infrastructure (roads and clean water), improving schools, increasing government transparency
On infrastructure: Greig said she is “right in line with the governor” on prioritizing road repairs.
Greig said Democrats knew the road-funding package the Legislature adopted in 2015 was not sufficient to pay for all of the state’s needed road maintenance. Lawmakers will need to come up with more funding, she added, citing a $4 billion annual price tag to fix existing infrastructure systems as estimated by a 2016 task force convened by then-Republican Gov. Rick Snyder.
“Our first big effort in both chambers and in the governor's office is to come up with the first budget under this new administration, and that's really going to be a reflection of our values,” she said. "Nothing should be off the table. We need to look at all those different options,” including increasing fees for overweight trucks, higher gas taxes or bonds.
The state also needs to study its water infrastructure, including the extent of the PFAS problem, Greig said. That could mean working with the new administration to hold public hearings in affected communities.
"Another big part of it, too, has to be the oversight of it,” she said. “We need to, I believe, do more work on that, as well. How do we actually hold all these projects accountable?"
On education: Greig said Michigan needs to more equitably fund its public schools, starting with ensuring that teachers have the resources they need to do their jobs.
Greig said House Democrats intend to continue to pursue legislation that was introduced this past term aimed at teacher attraction and retention, as well as to create more transparency and accountability around charter school authorizers and management companies.
In addition, Greig cited studies that show Michigan is underfunding its public schools, including when it comes to allocating more resources for schools that have higher numbers of English language learners or special education students.
Simply talking about closing the per-student funding gap between the highest- and lowest-funded school districts "doesn't demonstrate the complexity of bringing resources to kids with all different problems or different challenges,” she said.
Lawmakers can look at school funding through the appropriations process, Greig said. Some options could include paying for community colleges and universities out of the general fund, not the schools fund, which could free up more resources for K-12 schools and looking at reforms to reduce the roughly $2 billion state corrections budget.
On transparency: Greig said she has talked with new House Speaker Lee Chatfield about revisiting a package of bills to open up the governor’s office and the Legislature to the state Freedom of Information Act. They passed the House unanimously last term, but failed to advance in the Senate under former Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof.
But transparency goes beyond open records, she said. That could include opening up the internal records of charter school management companies, more sunlight around the cost of prescription drugs and more financial disclosure requirements for elected officials.
“Shedding light on potential conflicts of interest is very important for the public, too, to have increased faith in government,” she said.
On bipartisanship: The start of a new Legislature, particularly in an era of divided government, is an opportunity to reset, Greig said.
“Let's make a commitment for both sides to come together in both chambers and work in partnership with the governor’s office to come up with great solutions,” she said, adding that significant policy changes will only be accomplished if everyone comes to the table willing to work together.
She said narrower gaps between Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature, and a Democratic governor, create the right conditions for collaboration: "There's a lot of opportunity for us, if we just seize it.”