State of the State: Whitmer vows to tackle road, education ‘crises’

Lansing — Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer sought a bipartisan tone in her first State of the State address on Tuesday evening, calling for cooperation amid divided government but warning lawmakers against “passing phony fixes” to major problems.

 “We have to work together,” the East Lansing Democrat said in a speech to a joint session of the Republican-led state House and Senate, highlighting crumbling roads, struggling K-12 schools and other “crises” facing the state despite a growing economy.

“Michigan’s problems are not partisan problems. Potholes are not political. There is no such thing as Republican or Democratic school kids or drinking water. Our challenges affect us all. And they will require us all, working together, to solve," she said.

Whitmer proposed a series of new programs to close the so-called skills gap by training or educating residents to qualify for in-demand jobs, including a scholarship program she said would make Michigan the first state in the Midwest to guarantee free community college for high school graduates.

It’s not immediately clear how she plans to pay for the programs, which her office said will require legislative approval. Whitmer promised to unveil plans to “fix the damn roads” and improve K-12 education in her March budget presentation but urged lawmakers to approach negotiations with an eye toward compromise.

"There's a lot of good things in there to pursue, but the devil is in the details for how we pay for it," state Sen. Ruth Johnson, R-Holly said after the governor's speech. "We can't tax people out of the state."

Budget Director Chris Kolb said the administration is working on plans to pay for "all the priorities" Whitmer laid out. “We will be able to do this if we all come to the table and agree that we have to address these issues,” he said.

Whitmer wore a blue dress as she spoke inside the Michigan Capitol, which was buzzing with excitement despite dreary weather and falling snow outside. Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey and House Speaker Lee Chatfield joined her behind the rostrum.  

Several family members were present for the speech, including Whitmer’s husband, two daughters, brother and father. Even the governor's ex-husband, who is a professional photographer, was expected to attend and take pictures. 

Other officials who gathered at the Capitol included Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel, Macomb Public Works Commissioner Candice Miller and former United Auto Workers President Bob King. 

Several Democratic female legislators wore white in solidarity with suffragettes who fought for women's rights. Numerous legislators and guests wore “JDD” buttons in honor of former U.S. Rep. John Dingell, the legendary Democrat who died Thursday, and the flag outside the Capitol was flying at half-staff in his memory.

“He was the epitome of what I think we in Michigan know," Whitmer said of Dingell. "You don’t have to be mean to be strong. And those who live by this creed can get things done.”

Road conditions highlighted

The governor discussed her recent executive order to reorganize the state environmental department to focus on clean water and fighting climate change, noting bipartisan support from the likes of former Department of Environmental Quality Director Heidi Grether and Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician who exposed child lead exposure during the Flint water contamination crisis.

House Republicans last week voted to block Whitmer’s executive order overhauling the environmental department because it would abolish business-friendly panels they created last year to oversee rule-making and permitting processes, setting up the first partisan showdown of the term.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer delivers her State of the State speech to the combined chamber Tuesday evening, Feb. 12, 2019, at the Capitol in Lansing.

The GOP-led Senate has not yet voted on the executive order, but a committee is expected to meet Wednesday to continue debate. Whitmer has not backed down and made clear last week she will not withdraw the order, which would take effect 60 days after she signed it if the Legislature does not act.

As expected, Whitmer highlighted the poor condition of Michigan's roads, including recent closures on Interstate 75 in Oakland County caused by massive potholes. She warned that continued short-term action but stopped short of announcing her long-term plan.

"Let’s be clear: Incremental fund shifts — like we’ve seen in recent years — don’t fix the problem," Whitmer said. "They only slow our decline. And I didn’t run for governor to manage the decline of our state. I ran to make sure this state is one where our kids stay and families thrive."

As a candidate, Whitmer said she wanted to increase state infrastructure by up to $2 billion a year and indicated she may ask lawmakers to increase “user fees,” such as gas taxes, or ask voters to approve borrowing in the form of state bonds.  

The governor encouraged residents to share their own stories about what Michigan’s “infrastructure crisis” means to them, by snapping a photo of a damaged car or repair bill and posting it online with the hashtag #FTDR, a reference to her “fix the damn roads” campaign slogan.

"Right now, we have crumbling bridges with hundreds of temporary supports holding them up," she said, calling forced car repairs a "road tax" that does not fix the pavement. "Buses of school kids and families travel over them — and under them. Chunks of concrete slamming through windshields."

Beyond road repairs, Whitmer said she wants to improve road safety by having Michigan join 16 other states that have “hands-free law” to curb distracted driving by restricting touchscreen cell phone use.

Improving education

Whitmer urged improvements in Michigan's K-12 education system, noting poor literacy rates, teachers who feel undervalued and a recent report from Michigan State University that pegged the state as "dead last" in funding growth for K-12 schools since approval of Proposal A in 1994.

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

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer arrives to deliver her first State of the State speech.

Whitmer gave a shout-out to Marla Williams, a special education teacher at Davison Elementary-Middle School in Detroit, praising her as a “tireless advocate for her students.”

The governor touted steps she’s taken so far using the power of her pen, including directives requiring state employees to report public and safety health threats to their director. This is an attempt to prevent another Flint water contamination crisis.

Whitmer signed a separate directive strengthening anti-discrimination protections for gay and transgender employees of the state and contractors. And as The Detroit News first reported she would do, Whitmer urged the Legislature to permanently expand protections across the state by updating Michigan’s main civil rights law.

Economic, budget outlooks

Sen. Tom Barrett, R-Potterville, said the governor’s speech lacked details and noted Whitmer only once mentioned no-fault auto insurance rates, which he called a top priority among his constituents.

“We’ve basically criminalized the act of poverty in our state,” Barrett said. “If you’re poor you can’t drive to work, you can’t have a job because you can’t afford your auto insurance.”

Barrett said he remains opposed to the governor’s proposal to expand the Elliot Larsen Civil Rights Act and questioned where she would find the money for her community college scholarship proposal.

“I don’t know where the governor intends to pull the revenue to give away free community college and free two-year university education,” he said.

The first-term governor inherited a growing economy, and experts have painted an optimistic but uncertain picture of the state’s trajectory in coming years. The economy has “rarely been better than this, but there are more clouds on the horizon than there have been in a while,” University of Michigan economist Gabe Ehrlich told lawmakers and budget officials last month.

But Michigan’s budget outlook is murky. Revenue growth in the state general fund has been sluggish, and lawmakers late last year spent an extra $1.3 billion before Whitmer took office. January tax collections came in $183 million lower than expected, the non-partisan Senate Fiscal Agency said Tuesday.

Whitmer appeared to challenge the GOP-led Legislature when she cautioned against "playing a shell game with the state budget ... giving sweetheart deals to political insiders, or spending $1.3 billion on the last day of the lame-duck session in December.”

The governor outlined a three-track effort to close the skills gap by creating "Michigan Reconnect" program that would provide adults 25 and older with what her administration called a "tuition-free pathway" to an industry certificate or associate degree. A separate "Michigan Opportunity" scholarship program would help pay for a community college degree or two years of college for qualifying high school students. 

"If you’re willing to put in the work, you will have a path to succeed," Whitmer said. 

The governor said she hopes the GOP-led Legislature will continue its recent tradition of completing budgets by June, a hallmark of former Gov. Rick Snyder’s tenure. More than a decade ago, there were two short shutdowns when Democrat Jennifer Granholm was governor and Democrats controlled the House while Republicans led the Senate.  

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer with Speaker of the House Lee Chatfield before her State of the State speech.

Shirkey and Chatfield on Tuesday released a list of "shared priorities" that Republican lawmakers hope Whitmer would address in her speech. They included plans to lower sky-high auto insurance rates, fix infrastructure, continue criminal justice reforms, and support education and career training programs.

The Republican priorities "represent ample opportunity to craft bipartisan solutions," said Shirkey, R-Clarklake. 

"Reducing the cost of car insurance is not a goal exclusive to Republicans or Democrats, it’s a problem all Michiganders want us to fix," he said. "Building a better infrastructure plan has nothing to do with who you voted for in the last election, it’s about continual improvement so that Michigan is an attractive option for capital investment."

Republicans urged Whitmer to support plans to move an Enbridge oil and gas pipeline into a tunnel beneath the Straits of Mackinac. Whitmer opposed the plan as a candidate and last month asked Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel's legal opinion on a deal Sndyer finalized late last year.