Whitmer declares Snyder era over — except on budget deadlines

By: - February 13, 2019 4:45 am

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer at her first State of the State address | Casey Hull

Without mentioning his name, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer took former Gov. Rick Snyder and Republicans who worked with him to task in a sweeping State of the State address that touched on fixing Michigan roads, cleaning up drinking water and improving schools.

Snyder defined himself as a governor of “relentless positive action.” Whitmer’s criticism Tuesday night of Republicans for “passing phony fixes” to state roadways and K-12 education — and her sober look at the problems that Michigan must confront — is a clear departure from the Republican in tone and content, as the Advance noted in a preview story Tuesday morning.

“I spent 14 years in the Legislature, so I know how tough it is to keep the government funded and functioning. But I also know this: turning a blind eye or passing phony fixes won’t solve problems,” Whitmer said. “In fact, they make it harder. Filling potholes instead of rebuilding roads. Pretending that little increases can fix an education crisis like we have. Playing a shell game with the state budget. Ignoring the potential of hundreds of millions of dollars in lawsuits from the last administration. Giving sweetheart deals to political insiders. Or spending $1.3 billion on the last day of the lame-duck session in December.

“A government that doesn’t work today can’t get the job done for tomorrow. And that ends now,” Whitmer said during her address.

Michigan Capitol | Susan J. Demas

There was one thing Snyder accomplished that Whitmer said she seeks to emulate, however. At the end of her speech, she challenged Republican legislative leaders to work with her and get the budget done before summer, as they’d done with her predecessor.

“Budgets got done before the break,” she said. “And that was a good thing. Because just like every other workplace, we shouldn’t go on vacation until we get the job done.”

The State of the State address took place in Michigan’s Capitol in the midst of another winter snowstorm. The speech had originally been scheduled for Feb. 5, but was moved back so it didn’t coincide with President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address.

Whitmer attended the funeral Tuesday of former U.S. Rep. John Dingell (D-Dearborn), the longest-serving member of Congress. Many attendees were wearing pins in his honor. At the beginning of her remarks, Whitmer said that he “was the epitome of what I think we in Michigan know: You don’t have to be mean to be strong. And those who live by this creed can get things done.”

Whitmer took office on Jan. 1 along with other Democratic leaders, including Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and Attorney General Dana Nessel, whom Whitmer acknowledged at the top of her speech, along with Michigan Supreme Court Justice Bridget McCormack. She noted that Michigan is the only state in the country with four top female executives.

By the governor’s reckoning, Michigan faces two crises: a crisis in infrastructure, which has led to “the worst roads in the country” and the water crisis in Flint. Whitmer acknowledged PFAS contamination in 70 communities across the state as a major problem, but stopped short of calling it a “crisis.”

The second crisis, Whitmer said, is an education system that has led to “the worst decline in childhood literacy in the nation” and a skills gap in which roughly 44 percent of Michigan adults lack the education or training to find good-paying jobs.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer at her first State of the State address | Casey Hull

After Snyder, a self-described “nerd” who strived to focus on the positive, Whitmer offered a stark picture of Michigan — a state beset with “a road tax that doesn’t even fix the damn roads,” a callback to her campaign slogan.

The governor said that “endangers our lives” and robs people of money spent on vehicle repairs that could have gone toward childcare, rent, tuition or retirement. She also railed against the fact that Michigan has the “worst in the country” government transparency and its state employees are demoralized.

Potholes in downtown Lansing | Susan J. Demas

Whitmer said the “phony fixes” of the past won’t cut it.  

Road work ahead?

She even pronounced the state’s road situation potentially unfixable.

“We need to act now, before a catastrophe happens or the situation becomes truly unrecoverable,” she said.

Whitmer bashed “incremental funding shifts” that have been used to pay for road repairs as only slowing the decline and told lawmakers that she “didn’t run for governor to manage the decline of our state.”

Paul Ajegba, who’s in charge of state roadways at the Michigan Department of Transportation, has said the state will need an ongoing annual increase of $1.5 billion to fix and maintain roads at an acceptable standard.

MDOT Director Paul Ajegba in an interview at the state’s emergency operations center I Michael Gerstein

Ajegba said Michigan will need to “grow the pie,” rather than shift money in order to meet the state’s needs.

But both he and Budget Director Chris Kolb declined Tuesday night to say more. Whitmer is set to unveil her budget next month.

“The governor has a plan. She will be releasing that plan — I would not want to get out in front of the governor,” said Ajegba.

He agreed with the governor’s road assessment. He said about 33 percent more state-maintained roadways would fall into the department’s “poor” category by 2021 without an influx of money.

“At some point, it’s gonna be unsustainable,” he said. “You’re spending more money maintaining roads than you are fixing the problem.”

Governor’s plans

Despite the many portents, Whitmer also shared early plans to contend with some of these issues, although not many details.

As the Advance first reported, the governor announced new proposals she argues are meant to narrow the “skills gap.” The goal is to make it easier for high school graduates to get trade school certification or four-year degrees and help adults earn post-secondary education credentials.

She announced the self-described “aggressive” goal to boost Michigan residents with college degrees or trade certificates between age 16 and 64 to 60 percent by 2030.”

Whitmer said she will unveil a plan this fall to “guarantee two years of debt-free community college” for high school graduates that qualify for it, as well as a new scholarship that will offer two years of tuition assistance at four-year public universities or colleges.

The governor detailed a new program called Michigan Reconnect she says will train adults in industry certifications or associate degrees to help them advance their careers.

Gretchen Whitmer signs her first executive directive, Jan. 2, 2019 | Nick Manes

In addition, Whitmer touted her first actions during her first month and a half as governor. She noted the slew of executive directives on encouraging equal pay, awarding more state contracts to businesses from low-income areas and barring LGBTQ discrimination.

The governor called for LGBTQ people to be added to the state’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights act. That provoked a starkly different response from the Democratic half of the chamber, which gave her a standing ovation and Republicans, who were largely silent.

She noted her recent executive order restructuring and renaming the Department of Environmental Quality, which the GOP-led House overrode last week. Whitmer gave a shout-out to one Republican attending who backs her measure, Candice Miller, a former congresswoman who’s now Macomb County public works commissioner.

Glimmer of hope

While much of the speech focused on the challenges Michigan faces, the governor did give some personal acknowledgements to legislative leaders and their families: House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering), Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake), House Minority Leader Christine Greig (D-Farmington Hills) and Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D-Flint).

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist at her first State of the State address | Casey Hull

She also announced for the first time that Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist and his wife, Ellen, are expecting a baby in June.

And the governor ended on a hopeful note that hearkened back to her inaugural address in which she talked about “building bridges” with Republicans.

Whitmer concluded her speech with a story about a gift from the granddaughter of former Gov. G. Mennen “Soapy” Williams — a commemorative coin from the opening of the Mackinac Bridge inscribed with the words: “Built by the will of a great people, upon foundations of Michigan’s faith in her future.”

“More than 60 years later, we are still a great people,” Whitmer said. “We still have the will. We still have faith. The question is: do we have the wisdom to put partisanship aside and get the job done for the people we serve? I think we do. So let’s get to work.”

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Michael Gerstein
Michael Gerstein

Michael Gerstein is a former Advance reporter covering the Governor's office, criminal justice and the environment.