Detroit — After unveiling her first executive budget, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer went on the road Thursday to talk to elected officials, policy makers and community leaders about money for road repairs, schools, clean drinking water and  infrastructure.

"The goal is to make sure we get to a place where every young person has an opportunity and a great education, where every family has clean water, every person in Michigan has the skills they need to get into a high-wage job, that this is a place where business grows and thrives and comes to for opportunity and we fix the damn roads," the governor said.

She made her first stop of the day  at the Michigan Chronicle's Pancake & Politics forum at the Detroit Athletic Club in downtown Detroit.

Hours later, at Cobo Center in Detroit, she joined the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, which was meeting to propose its 2045 regional transportation plan. Whitmer said her budget, if approved, would be "the road to opportunity."

"Right now, 78 percent of our roads are in fair or good condition, which may be shocking to you, but it's falling precipitously, and if we don’t make a major investment in our roads now, we’re going to have a tragic problem," Whitmer said. "This is a statewide problem created through underfunding in the past 20 years. We don’t need studies to tell us Michigan has some of the worst roads in the country, we can see it." 

Southeast Michigan has more than 25,000 miles of roads and 2,900 bridges. SEMCOG said 74 percent of residents are dissatisfied with the conditions of roads and bridges and created the plan, based on its research and public input. 

Whitmer's proposal also includes a 45-cent-per-gallon fuel tax increase to pay for state road repairs, an additional $507 million in K-12 school classroom spending and a boost in spending to improve water and environmental infrastructure.

MoreWhitmer to propose 45-cent gas tax hike, $507M boost in K-12 spending

"We’re stealing from our schools to fill potholes and we’re not fixing the problem," Whitmer said at the SEMCOG gathering. "It was not easy to say we have to raise the gas tax. No one wants to raise the gas tax, but I ran to solve problems and to have a real solution, and all of us know when the roads get better, less of us spend money fixing our cars."

Xuan Liu, SEMCOG’s research manager, said the state's demographics are changing and so are the ways residents travel. 

"Our population is increasing slowly. We’ll add 380,000 people, or 8 percent in 30 years," he said. "Most of our population increase will be in the senior age group. People ages 65 or older will increase by 67 percent. An aging population will change travel patterns because seniors travel very differently than working-age people.”

Detroit NAACP president and pastor Wendell Anthony said he liked much of what Whitmer is proposing in the budget.

He requested that the governor make sure roads in his community, not just freeways and main thoroughfares, get fixed.

"I'm not just talking about Woodward and Jefferson," he said. "I'm talking about Linwood and Baxter and Fenkell."

It's important, he said, that when the state is hiring contractors to do the road work, it taps companies owned by and that employ Detroiters. 

Wendell also urged her to do something about high auto insurance rates in Detroit.

Whitmer told Wendell she understands his position. 

"I really believe in what you're saying, and we're working hard or policies and practices reflect that," she said. 

Under her proposed budget, the 45-cent gas tax hike would be phased in over three intervals and would generate about $2.5 billion a year for fixing roads.

She said it's estimated the tax will cost consumers an extra $23 a month at the pump but that would be offset by earned income tax credits, repeal of the state's pensioner tax and savings from not having to pay for auto repairs due to potholes. Whitmer said if the Legislature approves the budget, the state would be able to implement the other parts of her plan, such as an increase in funding for schools and infrastructure.

Her proposed school funding boost includes a per-pupil increase between $120 and $180, depending on current district funding levels. The minimum allowance would rise from $7,871 to $8,051 per student, while the maximum would rise from $8,409 to $8,529.

The budget proposal also calls for earmarking $13.9 million of the state's general fund to enhance monitoring of emerging public health threats, such as contaminated drinking water.

"It is not small and it is not easy," she said. "It will be difficult for some. But the fact of the matter is, if we don't do this, the cost will go up and up and the cost to our society will go up and up as well."
Twitter: @CharlesERamirez

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