Whitmer stresses infrastructure, education in State of the State

Michigan

LANSING, Mich. (WOOD) — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Tuesday delivered her first State of the State address, focusing on infrastructure, education and bipartisanship to reach effective solutions.

“The enemy is not the person across the aisle. The enemy is apathy. The enemy is extreme partisanship. The enemy is self-interest,” Whitmer, a Democrat, said toward the end of her speech before a joint session of the Republican-led Legislature in Lansing.

As she did during her campaign, she turned to the Mackinac Bridge as a symbol of what Michiganders can do when we work together. More than 60 years after it was built, she wondered, do we still have the same will?

“I think we do,” she said. “So let’s get to work.”

>>PDF: Full text of the address

INFRASTRUCTURE

As expected, Whitmer started her speech focusing on Michigan’s “failing infrastructure,” which she said would get worse over the next decade. She said roads marked with potholes and crumbling bridges sitting on temporary supports are costing Michigan drivers money.

“We are fixing our cars and paying a road tax that doesn’t even fix the damn roads,” she said.

She said the condition of the roads costs residents money, threatens the state’s edge in the mobility industry and limits potential economic investment.

“No one will invest in a state that doesn’t invest in itself,” she said. “This is a challenge 30 years in the making, the result of underinvestment under multiple administrations.”

She said the time for drastic action is now before the problem gets so bad that it can’t be fixed.

Whitmer asked residents and business owners to post stories and photos online showing how the state’s notoriously bad roads affect them with the hashtag #FTDR.

She went on to propose banning the use of cellphones while driving except with hands-free technology. Battle Creek recently passed a local ordinance to that effect and some other cities already have such a rule.

Whitmer also urged protecting water infrastructure, citing the Flint water crisis and the PFAS contamination seen around the state, including in West Michigan.

>>App users: Watch the full address

EDUCATION

Whitmer’s second main point was increased attention to and spending on education. She said a lack of investment is causing a skills gap that was affecting the automotive industry. She said auto executives told her they couldn’t attract engineers or skilled trades workers.

She said Michigan third-graders rank in the bottom 10 in the nation in reading and that declining childhood literacy rates are the worst in the nation, crossing racial and socioeconomic boundaries.

“This is not happening because our kids are less talented. It’s not happening because our educators are less dedicated. It’s happening because generations of leadership have failed them,” she said.

She blamed lawmakers, who she said for the last decade have “raided” the K-12 education funding to use the money elsewhere.

“While we can’t fix the system overnight and greater investment along won’t be enough, we are going to do it because 2 million kids in Michigan are counting on us,” Whitmer said.

She said the state also hasn’t prioritized talent development or creating paths to a skilled job. She said Michigan is among only nine states in the nation and the only one in the Midwest that doesn’t have a formal goal for people to get post-secondary degrees or certifications.

“That changes tonight,” she said.

She announced a goal for 60 percent of people ages 16 to 64 to have post-secondary credentials by 2030, which she acknowledged was “aggressive” but said was necessary.

To meet that goal, she said she was launching a program called Michigan Reconnect to help people already in the workforce gain new skills. The other part of the effort was her new MI Opportunity scholarship program, which will provide for two years of community college for qualifying high school graduates. That program, which will launch this spring and start paying out in the fall of 2020, will also be available to fund two years of a four-year degree for students who got at least a B average in high school.

EQUALITY

Whitmer took time to champion LGBT and women’s rights causes, pointing to an executive order she signed to prohibit discrimination in the state workforce based on sexual orientation or gender identity. She proposed expanding the state’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to include protections for LGBT people.

Another of her orders prohibited state agencies from asking female applicants about past salaries, which she said would prevent past discrimination from affecting future earnings and help close the wage gap. She argued expanding that rule to everyone in the state would cut the poverty rate among working women in half and even further for single working mothers.

Whitmer also pointed out that for the first time, the Michigan governor, secretary of state (Jocelyn Benson), attorney general (Dana Nessel) and Supreme Court chief justice (Bridget Mary McCormack) are all women. She also noted that Michigan’s senior U.S. senator and five of our representatives in the U.S House are women.

>>App users: 24 Hour News 8’s one-on-one interview with Whitmer before her speech

OTHER INITIATIVES

Discussing moves she has already made, Whitmer recapped her reorganization of the state’s environmental agencies, saying it has bipartisan support. She also said she had joined Michigan in the bipartisan U.S. Climate Alliance to reduce the state’s greenhouse gas emissions in accordance with the Paris Climate Agreement.

She promised to defend the Healthy Michigan program, which she worked on when she was a member of the state Legislature. She said she recently sent a letter to the Trump administration outlining concerns about new work requirements for Medicaid. She added that Michigan has joined with other states in a lawsuit to defend the Affordable Care Act, more commonly known as Obamacare, saying people’s health care was on the line.

Near the beginning of her speech, Whitmer honored former U.S. Rep. John Dingell, the longest-serving congressman ever, who died last week at the age of 92. A funeral service for Dingell was held in Dearborn Tuesday.

Toward the end of her remarks, Whitmer supported reforms made under her Republican predecessor, former Gov. Rick Snyder, that consistently got the state budgets completed before a legislative break.

“No break until the budget’s done,” she said. “We shouldn’t go on vacation until our job is done.”

REPUBLICAN LAWMAKERS WANT SPECIFICS

Lawmakers listening to the speech agreed something has to be done about aging roads and water infrastructure, but Republicans said the governor lacked specifics in how to fix the problems.

“It’s going to require negotiations, but negotiations first start with seeing a plan. We have yet to see her plan,” Speaker of the House Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, said.

“There was no substantive nature of what she was proposing and I think that’s really cause of concern,” Rep. Brandt Iden, R-Oshtemo, agreed.

Whitmer said she would have that plan ready when she proposes a budget in March, and fellow Democrats say she has already hit the ground running.

“She’s been in the job for, what, a month and a half? I think it’s exciting to see how much she’s already been able to deliver when she talks about her executive directives, her executives orders and the work she’s doing with our personnel,” Rep. Jon Hoadley, D-Kalamazoo, said.

Another concern from some Republicans is how Whitmer plans to fund some of her programs, specifically the MI Opportunity scholarship. On that point, Democrats also recognized there is work to be done.

“We’re going to have to figure out, again, the details of how we’re going to make the numbers work,” Sen. Winnie Brinks, D-Grand Rapids, said, “but what I do know is if we don’t do those things, we suffer as a state.”

With a Democrat in the governor’s office and the Legislature still led by Republicans, bipartisanship is going to be necessary to get anything done, but lawmakers from both sides seemed confident that can happen.

“I’m excited about working across the aisle because a good idea does not have an R or a D after its name,” Hoadley said.

“We’re not Washington, D.C., and I think we can move forward with that,” Iden said. “I think it’s going to be finding a landing spot with some of these ideas she proposed.”

—24 Hour News 8’s Evan Dean contributed to this report.

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