Whitmer to focus budget on closing the skills gap, infrastructure

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer makes a point about the roads and other topics during her one-on-one conversation with Dennis Archer Jr. Thursday at the Detroit Policy Conference.

Detroit — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said repairing Michigan's crumbling infrastructure and closing the skills gap are issues she regards as the "true fundamentals" heading into her first state budget plan next week.

Whitmer honed in on the topics, areas where she said she can find "common ground" with the Republican-dominated Legislature, during a Thursday talk at the Detroit Policy Conference at MotorCity Casino Hotel.

The Democratic governor made multiple references to the reputation she earned on the campaign trail as the "fix the damn roads lady," saying other states don't have such dire infrastructure challenges, nor do they have skills gaps as wide.

Although she doesn't see eye-to-eye with Republican lawmakers on certain issues, she's "laser focused" on the "dinner table issues."

"No matter where you live in the state, if you can't put food on the table, you can't get ahead," Whitmer told Dennis Archer Jr., this year's chair of the program put on by the Detroit Regional Chamber. "That doesn't matter you're a Democrat or Republican."

Whitmer on Thursday also said she's just set a goal for post-secondary attainment for 60 percent by 2030.

"Up until when I gave my State of the State a couple weeks ago, we were the only state in the Midwest that hadn’t formalized a goal," Whitmer noted. "We were only one of nine states in our country that hadn’t formalized a goal.”

Whitmer said she will talk on Tuesday about scholarship and workforce training programs. The state has some "glaring issues," she said, addressing them will create a path to fulfill her vision of access to good jobs and schools and real opportunity in Michigan.

The governor's appearance at the Thursday conference comes days after she took part in an announcement in the city involving a new plant for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV.

The automaker confirmed plans on Tuesday to revive a previously idled engine plant on the city's east side as part of a $4.5 billion investment in five Michigan plants. The actions would create about 6,500 new jobs in the region. 

Whitmer said the deal will improve opportunities not only in the city but Macomb and Monroe counties.

Whitmer has said that Michigan's incentives for FCA to add 6,500 jobs here will not require legislative approval. The state, she said, will use existing economic development programs to assist the automaker’s planned expansion.

Details will be provided at an upcoming, yet-to-be scheduled meeting of the Michigan Strategic Fund, which gives companies money in exchange for job creation and investment, she said.

Whitmer told reporters Thursday that the conversation began with the Michigan Economic Development Corp. under the Snyder administration and the auto company kept coming back with "even bigger plans to invest in Michigan."

"In comparison to the kind of economic developments that happen in this state, this dwarfs everything else that's been done," she said. "My understanding of what is on the table is incredibly conservative considering the return that we're going to get on the investment."

If Mayor Mike Duggan's administration delivers the land, a community benefits agreement, and council approval, Fiat Chrysler would bring nearly 4,000 new jobs to the city to staff the vehicle assembly line.

City officials have just 60 days to acquire 200 acres of land and secure City Council approval to pave the way for what will be the first new assembly plant in nearly three decades.

The city plans to give Fiat Chrysler a property tax abatement of about $12 million,  Duggan has said. 

Detroit City Councilman Andre Spivey said Thursday the timeline is tight, but he's confident it'll get done.

"We've been under this kind of pressure before," he said. "I wish we could have more time, but it's here now. We're glad that FCA chose to remain in Detroit, so we have to get it done."


Associated Press contributed.