Opinion: Whitmer's veto of autism program remains inexplicable and damaging

Ron Fournier

The call came from a friend, the father of a girl with autism. “Did you hear what the governor did?” He was choking back tears. “She vetoed the Navigator program. What was she thinking?”

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer had just issued $947 million in line-item vetoes, a political gamble designed to restart negotiations over road funding. Seeking to create pain for Republican legislators, the governor slashed funding for several popular, bipartisan programs including one cherished by people touched by autism: $1 million in funding for the MiNavigator program, a public-private partnership that helps Michiganians tackle the complex web of services and obstacles confronting people with autism.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer

A month later, I still don’t know what to tell my friend.

After all, the governor is a supporter of autism services and a friend of the Autism Alliance of Michigan, the Bingham Farms-based organization that founded the Navigator program and championed a law requiring insurance coverage for autism.

As a member of the alliance’s board of directors, I sat in the audience last spring when Whitmer praised the 10-year-old organization at our annual gala.

“I am going to be an ally and a great partner as we continue to push forward and make Michigan a great state to be home,” she said, “even if you've got a hurdle in front of you."

In conversations with Autism Alliance of Michigan staff and board members, she promised to support the Navigator program.

So why the veto? I don’t believe it an act of animus or heartlessness. It was politics. As a native Detroiter who covered the White House and presidential campaigns for 25 years in Washington, I know as well as anybody that popular programs like MiNavigator are often used as leverage in budget fights. As a supporter of the governor, a left-of-center voter who wants to see her fix the damn roads, I appreciate the governor’s stiff-spine approach to negotiations.

But people with autism shouldn’t be pawns. The unintended consequences of her actions are detrimental and even dangerous to people with autism and their families. In the last month, as the governor’s gambit failed to revive her roads plan and the vetoes took hold, more than 1,500 Michiganians sent emails to the governor urging her to restore the money.

The governor replied to the autism families with an email urging them to lobby Republicans to support her budget priorities. The reply confirmed the worst fears of autism families — that the governor saw their value in only political terms — because Republican lawmakers had already secured MiNavigator funding in their budgets. Whitmer alone vetoed MiNavigator.

Now the Autism Alliance of Michigan is scrambling to protect the MiNavigator program. We launched a fundraising Bridge Campaign to temporarily fill the gap between promises made and promises broken. We hope to avoid budget cuts that would cause further pain to Michigan’s autism community.

Had the body blow come from an unwitting bureaucrat or callous politician, it would be hard enough to stomach. But this unique lifeline to a lifetime of services was vetoed by our friend and ally, our governor, a self-declared champion of autism families. That is impossible to explain.

Ron Fournier is president of Truscott Rossman, a public relations firm in Detroit. He is the father of a young man with autism and serves on the board of the Autism Alliance of Michigan. He wrote a book about his son, Tyler, called “Love That Boy.”