Whitmer seeks 'common ground' in State of the State address

Craig Mauger Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer urged a move toward "common ground" with Republican lawmakers Wednesday during her third State of the State address as she called for ending the COVID-19 pandemic and boosting the economy.

The less-than-30-minute speech was short on criticism but emphasized working together despite high-profile clashes with Republican lawmakers as recently as Wednesday afternoon. She mentioned focusing on "what unites us" and improving "how we talk to each other."

"My mission is to find common ground so we can emerge from this crisis stronger than ever," Whitmer said.

Speaking from her Capitol office, the governor spent much of her address reflecting on 2020, a year defined by a pandemic and a contentious presidential election, touting past accomplishments and renewing appeals for past proposals. There were new ideas included, such as the announcement that she'll reconvene a school advisory council to examine how to promote a "comprehensive recovery." 

Whitmer also revealed she plans to award previously approved grants of up to $500 each for teachers and support staff next month and proposed making permanent a temporary $2-per-hour raise for direct care workers who provide health care for seniors and those with disabilities.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks during her third State of the State address on Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021.

She highlighted past bipartisan achievements, including criminal justice reform and budget deals, in pushing for more work across the aisle.

"Let’s tap into that same energy and end the pandemic, revitalize our economy and get our kids back in school," Whitmer said. "Let’s make good use of this non-election year and work together. After all, we’re Michiganders first."

But the address came as Republicans in the state Legislature took more aggressive steps to oppose restrictions her administration has implemented to stem the spread of COVID-19.

Hours before her speech, the GOP-controlled Michigan Senate voted along party lines, 19-14, to block 13 of the governor's appointees. Sen. Ken Horn, R-Frankenmuth, called on Whitmer to treat the Legislature as a co-equal branch of government, giving it say in decisions about the pandemic. If she doesn't, lawmakers will use their powers "without explanation," Horn said.

In another development, Republicans in the GOP-controlled House proposed tying $2 billion in education funding to a proposal that would shift the power to close schools and suspend sports away from Whitmer. House Republicans want the decisions to rest instead with local health departments.

“Like many Michiganders, we are listening to the governor’s speech tonight in the hopes of hearing answers," Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, and House Speaker Jason Wentworth, R-Farwell, said in a Wednesday statement. "Putting Michigan back to work is long overdue.

"Tonight, we want to hear Gov. Whitmer acknowledge it is time to lift her unnecessary restrictions."

After the speech, Republicans voiced frustrations with past unilateral measures implemented by the governor. They also showed varying levels of optimism about working together.

“What matters far more than a speech are actions," said Sen. Aric Nesbitt, R-Lawton. "We need to get people back to work, efficiently distribute the vaccine, provide meaningful relief to small businesses that will help jump-start Michigan’s economy and work on a responsible balanced budget."

Whitmer's speech broke tradition in its format alone. Usually, Michigan governors give the annual State of the State address before lawmakers during a joint session of the House and Senate.

On Wednesday night, lawmakers watched from home, as the governor delivered her address over a video feed. Whitmer said she was speaking from her office with "a few people" in attendance.

"As far as we know, this is the first time that the State of the State was not done in person in front of the Legislature," said Annakathryn Welch, archivist with the Archives of Michigan.

Healing divisions

In a nod to “deep divisions” after the election and a year of debate over COVID-related restrictions, Whitmer announced a listening tour across the state called “Fixing the Damn Road Ahead” to meet with and hear from residents across the state. 

Whitmer said she hopes the tour will produce "common ground" so the state is "stronger than ever" as the pandemic ends. 

"To focus on what unites us, improve how we talk to each other, and together we’ll fix the damn road ahead," the governor said.

Whitmer also said she would reconvene the Return to School Advisory Council to provide guidance on learning recovery programs for students who have been limited to online learning for months. The council initially was convened to prepare for and plan the reopening of schools in the fall.

The reconvening of the council comes after Whitmer strongly encouraged schools earlier this month to offer in-person learning by March 1.

A House supplemental spending plan announced Wednesday sought to address expected learning loss by targeting money for voluntary summer school programs and credit recovery plans for students. It's not clear whether the governor supports the proposal. 

Pandemic relief

Whitmer called on the Legislature to pass her $5.6 billion COVID-19 relief plan "immediately." On Jan. 19, the governor proposed the plan, which would rely heavily on dollars from the federal government and features $2 billion for schools, $225 million for economic development programs and an extension of unemployment benefits.

The proposal includes $90 million that Congress appropriated for vaccine distribution and $575 million to expand COVID-19 testing, tracing and lab capacity in Michigan.

"My plan gives crucial support for small businesses and resources to help them thrive long after the pandemic is over," Whitmer said.

So far, Republicans in the Legislature have rebuffed the plan. The House GOP unveiled its alternative, $3.5 billion idea on Wednesday. It included tying $2 billion in education funding to the governor handing her administration's power to close schools and halt sports over to local health departments.

Michigan has been grappling with COVID-19 since March 10 when the first infections were reported here. As of Wednesday, the state has reported 554,237 confirmed cases and 14,411 deaths linked to the virus. But 463,106 residents are considered recovered.

"Let’s end this pandemic," Whitmer said. "Make your plan to get vaccinated, and keep wearing your mask until this pandemic is over. Let’s join forces to jump-start our economy."

The state has now administered more than 800,000 vaccines, making it sixth in the nation for the most vaccines administered, Whitmer said, referring to a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranking. She repeated the state's commitment to eventually administer 50,000 vaccines a day.  

The Michigan State Medical Society called the plan "critically important" to bringing the virus under control. 

"Vaccinating as many people as possible, as quickly as possible, is not only vital to the public’s overall health and well-being, it is also necessary in returning our economy and education system back to where they need it to be," society President Dr. Bobby Mukkamala said.

After a surge in November, the state has experienced decreases in infection rates over the last month. Last week, Michigan reported its lowest new COVID-19 case total in 14 weeks: 12,535. Whitmer's administration has announced that bars and restaurants will be able to offer indoor dining on Monday after a 75-day closure.

More funding for roads

Transportation improvements will continue to be a focus of the governor, who ran for election in 2018 with the slogan "Fix the damn roads."

"We're going to forge ahead rebuilding our roads in 2021 to protect our families and keep more money in Michiganders’ pockets," she said Wednesday.

During her last State of the State address on Jan. 29, 2020, Whitmer unveiled a plan to borrow up to $3.5 billion over the next four years to inject a rush of money into the state's crumbling road system.

In the fall, the state closed on an $800 million bond issue, the first installment of the plan. The $3.5 billion in bonds is expected to cost about $5.2 billion if repaid through $206.6 million annual debt service payments over 25 years.

On Wednesday, the governor renewed her call from last year for a $500 million boost in spending in Michigan's water infrastructure.

"It’s time for the Legislature to pass these bills so we can start rebuilding Michigan’s water infrastructure," she said.

Lowering drug prices

Whitmer announced Tuesday that a task force meant to study the increase in prescription drug prices had produced several recommendations, including transparency reports from drug manufacturers, state licensure for pharmacy benefit managers and measures meant to make medications affordable. 

This week, House Minority Leader Donna Lasinski, D-Scio Township, said "taking those recommendations to make prescription drugs more affordable and accessible, that should be a top priority,"

Whitmer on Wednesday urged the Legislature to put the drug pricing proposals on its "to-do list."

"Prices for life-saving prescriptions have skyrocketed, forcing people to choose between getting their medicine, paying rent, or buying food," she said.