Opinion: What to watch for in Whitmer’s first State of the State
For state and local politicians — as well as others interested in public policy — the governor's State of the State address is akin to the Detroit Tigers home opener. It’s more than the start of a season, it is a social event. It’s the first big opportunity in months to see teams in action when the score really matters.
Today, rookie Gov. Gretchen Whitmer will take the podium and deliver her message to the people of Michigan. If history is any guide — the Mackinac Center has watched the last 27 of these annual events and studied the last 49 —we can expect a normal pattern. The governor will thank other elected officials, tip her hat to bipartisan cooperation, pepper her talk with perfectly timed and patriotic applause lines, highlight key visitors in the galley and lay out policy goals for the remainder of the year.
With a new governor, those goals are probably easier to predict than with a veteran. Just look to her campaign promises. That likely means proposals for higher spending on K-12 education, roads and infrastructure and maybe even a tiny tax cut for some pensioners — all subjects she’s covered on the campaign trail.
Despite the politicking and vague filler statements, these addresses do matter. Governors use them to make proposals and people can get a decent idea about their agendas. For insight we have read and/or watched every State of the State address delivered by a Michigan governor from William Milliken’s 1969 address through Gov. Rick Snyder’s final address last year. We then counted proposed expansions and limitations by each and compared them. We will do so again Tuesday night.
Admittedly, this is not a scientific analysis, but we think it generally gives insights into the degree to which state intervention — even interference — may be viewed as a solution to a problem or the problem itself.
Historically, Milliken proposed the fewest expansions of state government, at 5.6 per speech during his tenure. In one year, 1974, he proposed no new expansions of state government in an address of 550 words, or less than six minutes of talk. No governor since has proposed zero expansions in a State of the State remarks.
Gov. Jennifer Granholm holds the distinction of proposing more expansions than anyone else — 16.3 per speech — boosted by her record 24 proposals in 2008. Gov. John Engler holds the title for the most proposed limitations of state government on average, at 4.3 per speech. Snyder had the fewest, at 1.3.
For our part, we expect Whitmer to roll out her vision for Michigan, and we expect it to be an expansive and interventionist one. That is an easy call. She spent 14 years in Legislature, and her voting record makes it clear she is comfortable with a robust government calling the shots — especially economic ones.
As a lawmaker, she supported giving money to film studios, substantial state support of battery companies, mandating more energy from windmills and solar, a higher minimum wage, more government regulation like licensing mandates, and a higher income tax rate on all citizens. The future governor also supported nearly every select business subsidy vote lawmakers approved, transferring more than $4.5 billion from taxpayers to chosen corporations.
But the governor is now working with a Republican Legislature, and both sides, while not necessarily giving in on their principles, will have room to compromise. On the campaign trail, nearly everyone ran on continuing to increase spending on roads and transportation infrastructure. We expect calls for that. Other areas of agreement include criminal justice reform, particularly for the state changing laws to make it easier for those with a criminal background to find work.
For the first time in eight years, Michigan has a divided government. While the policy focus of the governor will change and be laid out in the upcoming address, the real policy story starts in the coming weeks as the House, Senate and Whitmer lay out their budget proposals. The State of the State is the talk preceding the real action of budgeting taxpayer dollars.
Michael LaFaive is senior director of the Morey Fiscal Policy Initiative at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.
Jarrett Skorup is the director of marketing and communications at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.