Whitmer jabs GOP, unveils $3.5B bonding plan to boost road aid

Craig Mauger Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is launching a "Plan B" to improve Michigan's crumbling infrastructure that includes up to $3.5 billion in bonds to fund road projects while jabbing legislative Republicans for supposed inaction.

Whitmer announced the initiative, Rebuilding Michigan, during Wednesday's State of the State address, attempting to make good on her campaign promise to "fix the damn roads." Bonding will allow the first-term Democratic governor to create a quick influx of money by taking on debt that the state will pay back over time.

During the relatively brief 35-minute address, Whitmer emphasized the urgency of the problem facing Michigan's roads and the immediate need to take action.

"Believe me, the people of Michigan don’t want more ceremony, they want concrete action," the Democratic governor said. "And sometimes, they just want concrete."

Rebuilding Michigan will allow the state to add and expand 122 "major new road projects," according to a press release.

"Since it doesn’t require the Legislature to act, we can get started right away," Whitmer said. "That’s important. Cutting down on the time we take to repair Michigan’s most frequently traveled trunk lines and state roads is fiscally responsible."

Republican leaders criticized the plan as a short-term financing mechanism for which future generations would be paying for years to come. 

"What she’s focusing on is a financing tool and, if done right, can be responsible," House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, said after Whitmer's address. "But it's not a funding proposal. This is not a long-term solution for our roads, simply taking out a loan and passing it on to our children.”

GOP lawmakers had spent years working to pay down the state's debts, but "that’s all going to go away," said Laura Cox, chairwoman of the Michigan Republican Party and a former House Appropriations Committee chairwoman.

While some Republicans complained that Whitmer’s bond plan would prioritize urban highways over rural local roads, Sen. Jeremy Moss, D-Southfield, countered that roads in Metro Detroit had “been shortchanged for a generation.”

GOP counters Whitmer

Whitmer also used her speech to highlight Michigan's economy — she says the state announced the future creation of nearly 11,000 auto jobs in 2019 — and promote upcoming actions on health care and education. She announced initiatives to expand health coverage for women who recently had babies and to expand preschool access.

Her plans were greeted by several standing ovations from Democrats. But Republicans largely remained seated during the speech and rose when she acknowledged the state's historic passage of Republican-written no-fault auto reform in 2019.

But road funding was the primary focus, and bonding provides the governor a way around the Republican-controlled Legislature, which blocked her 2019 plan to increasing the state's 26.3-cents-a-gallon gas tax by 45 cents. Polls also found it to be unpopular among residents. 

Whitmer called bonding "Plan B," which she also described as "executive action."

"So, from now on, when you see orange barrels on a state road: Slow down, and know that it’s this administration, fixing the damn roads," Whitmer said during her speech.

Chatfield and other GOP lawmakers took issue with the governor's suggestion that GOP leaders failed to submit a reasonable alternative for road funding. 

"It was revisionist history by this governor," Chatfield said. "We tried to meet her in the middle. We tried to ensure that every penny paid at the pump would go toward roads. She refused to work with us. And it was 45 cents or bust.”

The State Transportation Commission, which features six members appointed by the governor, has the ability under state law to issue bonds against State Trunkline Fund revenues, mainly registration fees and gas tax. The dollars resulting from the bond sale can be used to finance projects on major state highways with officials hoping the projects outlast the debt payments.

The commission is scheduled to meet at 8 a.m. Thursday. The agenda, which was posted Wednesday afternoon, features a "new bond resolution."

While specific details of the bonding proposals weren't clear Wednesday night, a press release said the new funds would double the "amount available to fix roads over the next five years than if we wait."

If lawmakers aren't going to raise taxes substantially to improve the roads, the path of "least resistance" is bonding, Stephen Adamini, a Democrat from Marquette whom Whitmer appointed to the commission in December, told The Detroit News earlier this week.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer delivers her the State of the State address at the Capitol Building in Lansing, Mich. on Jan. 29, 2020.

But Republican lawmakers have opposed the idea of taking on debt that will eventually have to be paid back through transportation revenues. Sen. Roger Victory, R-Hudsonville, introduced a symbolic bill earlier this month that would empower the Legislature to disapprove of bond sales that total more than $100 million — an effect Whitmer would likely veto.

The Republican-led Legislature put $375 million extra for road funding in the current budget, but Whitmer vetoed the one-time spending as not representing a long-term fix to the problem. As a result, the State Department of Transportation's budget slightly declined from the prior year's budget.

Health care for new moms

Whitmer also focused her second State of the State speech on health care and education.

Whitmer said she wants to enshrine parts of the Affordable Care Act into state law in case the 2010 federal law is repealed in part or in whole by the federal courts. 

The effort, which would need support from the GOP-led Legislature, would adopt several of Obamacare’s provisions into state law, including mandates banning insurance companies from discrimination or denial based on a client’s gender, sexual orientation, health or pre-existing conditions.

"But we need the support of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. I urge the lawmakers here tonight to think about your constituents," Whitmer said, according to prepared remarks. "Think about any woman who has given birth, any child with asthma, or anyone with a chronic condition like diabetes or high blood pressure."

Whitmer also announced plans to make child care more accessible to low-income families by lowering the poverty level threshold for subsidy qualification and helping people to navigate the system.

The governor said she plans to use an executive order to create a task force on pharmaceutical drug pricing. Her upcoming budget proposal would extend health coverage for low-income women who have had babies, Whitmer said.

The proposal would extend postpartum care from 60 days to one year after a woman gives birth and would move up a woman’s first postpartum visit to within three weeks, with a comprehensive visit within 12 weeks, she said. 

On education, Whitmer said her administration would make preschool access "universal" for children living in districts where test scores are low or poverty is high.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer with Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II, behind her, acknowledges some guests during the State of the State address at the Capitol Building in Lansing on Jan. 29, 2020.  She is flanked by Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, left, and Speaker of the House Lee Chatfield, right.

In addition, Whitmer said she directed the Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity to expand the right to overtime pay to tens of thousands of Michigan workers — an initiative the Michigan Chamber of Commerce has opposed as too permissive and expensive. Whitmer said only workers making $35,000 or less currently have overtime rights. The threshold is too low, the governor argued.

Employers who intentionally violate our wage and hour laws should suffer the consequences, said Charles Owens, state director of the National Federation of Independent Business.

"Unfortunately, the governor is going about it the wrong way, using the rules process to expand overtime eligibility," Owens said. "The Whitmer administration seems more interested in playing ‘gotcha’ when an employer makes an honest mistake in complying with complex payroll laws."

Whitmer also honored the legacy of Michigan's longest-serving governor, William "Bill" Milliken, who passed away in October 2019.

In her speech, the governor announced that this year in Milliken’s memory, the state will break ground on a Milliken Visitor Center at arch rock on Mackinac Island.