Rick Haglund: Republicans hit Whitmer by playing up urban vs. rural divide

April 13, 2019 8:14 am

Republican lawmakers who are dealing with a Democratic governor for the first time in eight years have already hatched a strategy to take back the seat: Claim at every turn that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is a city slicker who favors urban interests over the needs of the state’s rural population.

My initial snarky reaction was to say it’s about time.

Michigan hasn’t had an urban strategy since Republican Gov. William Milliken led the state more than 40 years ago. The decline of most of the state’s larger cities since then has put Michigan at a serious disadvantage in retaining and attracting talented young workers, who largely want to live in vibrant cities and nearby suburbs.

I grew up in a small, northern Michigan town and, like many, am distressed by the economic decline of the rural portions of the state. But the evidence that our new governor is favoring urban dwellers over small-town residents is thin.

It’s true that Whitmer, who’s been in office less than four months, has made a few controversial decisions that have upended the promise of new jobs in some rural communities.

Her administration announced in March that it was halting a plan approved by the state under GOP former Gov. Rick Snyder in 2017 to build a $115 million psychiatric hospital in Caro, a town of about 4,000 people located 30 miles east of Saginaw.

The state Department of Health and Human Services has hired an outside consultant to review concerns that the new hospital would be too far away from most patients and families, and would not be able to attract professional staff. The report is due in June.

In February, Whitmer killed a plan to sell a long-vacant state prison near Ionia to a private company that wanted to use it house federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees.

Immigration Centers of America said it could not meet the governor’s demand that the facility wouldn’t be used to detain adults who are separated from children and other family members. President Trump has recently discussed bringing back the family separation policy.

National polls have shown that most non-Republican Americans detest separating families at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Activist Maru Mora Villalpando leads a protest and march outside a Federal Detention Center on June 9, 2018 in SeaTac, Washington. | Karen Ducey, Getty Images

Whitmer’s actions have not gone over well with Republican lawmakers and local officials, who say halting the Caro Center and immigration detention center projects could devastate their communities’ economies.

“I am disgusted at the blatant disregard for rural Michigan and Thumb residents,” state Rep. Phil Green (R-Millington) said about the Caro decision. “The governor has shown that she is interested only in helping the residents of areas that were instrumental in electing her — repeatedly disenfranchising areas of the state that were not.”

Whitmer is waging her biggest battle with the Republican-controlled Legislature over her sweeping proposal to raise the gas tax by 45 cents a gallon, which would generate about $2.5 billion a year in new funding to repair Michigan’s crumbling roads.

Part of that plan is to overhaul Act 51, a 68-year-old formula that determines how road funding is allocated among state and local governments. Whitmer wants to revamp the law so that more money is spent on maintaining more heavily traveled roads, primarily in metropolitan areas, that are in the worst shape.

Downtown Lansing road | Susan J. Demas

The current formula favors rural roads because money is allocated by linear mile without regard to the number of road lanes or the traffic volume.

But state House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) said Whitmer’s road funding plan is dead on arrival in the Legislature. Michigan residents can’t afford a 45-cent-a-gallon tax increase, he wrote in a recent Detroit News guest opinion column.

And — you guessed it —Chatfield also claimed Whitmer’s plan is another slap at rural Michigan that would “redirect road dollars away from local and county roads and send them to a small handful of big cities.”

“We should not be pitting our cities against our rural communities,” he said. “We are one state, and we should have a one-state solution.”

But Republicans, who have totally controlled state government for the past eight years, share a lot of blame for the condition of our transportation infrastructure.

Lawmakers boosted the gas tax by 7.3 cents a gallon in 2015 and increased vehicle registration fees, moves that merely slowed the rate of road deterioration. They also have failed to enact the kind of budget efficiencies they tout to free up adequate road funding.

And what has the Republican-controlled state government done to aid rural Michigan? Certainly not enough, as economic conditions there have mostly deteriorated over the past decade.

ALICE report

The latest ALICE (asset limited, income constrained, employment) report by the Michigan Association of United Ways, shows a marked increase since 2010 in the number of rural counties where residents struggle to afford basic living costs.

Their urban neighbors also are pinched. The report shows that 43 percent of Michigan households could not afford the costs of housing, child care, food, technology, health care and transportation in 2017. That’s up from 41 percent in 2010.

Whitmer is trying to change the trajectory by investing in education, transportation infrastructure and communities that will make Michigan more attractive to investment and better-paying jobs — for everyone.

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Rick Haglund
Rick Haglund

Rick Haglund writes the "Micheconomy" column for the Michigan Advance. He's a former reporter and business columnist for Booth Newspapers, now the MLive Media Group, with extensive experience covering Michigan’s economy and the auto industry. He now works as a freelance writer based in Southeast Michigan.