After a year battling Republicans, Whitmer vows executive action on roads, other priorities

By: and - January 29, 2020 11:23 pm

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer at the State of the State address, Jan. 29, 2020 | Andrew Roth

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer was not shy Wednesday evening about addressing the partisan roadblocks her administration faced over the last year from the Republican-controlled Legislature, which stymied some of her biggest policy goals.

The Democratic governor delivered her second State of the State address in the Michigan House chamber, taking a look back at the progress she said was made in 2019, with an eye ahead for four key legislative goals: roads, jobs, education and health care.

“When it comes to tackling Michigan’s challenges, I’ve got a Plan A and a Plan B. Plan A was simple — it was in my budget last year,” Whitmer said. “… I am not here to play games. That’s why it’s time for Plan B.

“For those of you who want to keep playing games, I’m going to press on without you. I’m going to use the power of my office to do what I said I was going to do.”

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As the Advance first reported she would, Whitmer urged Michiganders and state leaders to change the culture of hate speech and misogyny in the Capitol and online. 

“Unfortunately, we’ve also seen an uptick in hateful, harmful language in Michigan and across the country. A lot of it starts in Washington, D.C., and now it feels like it’s working its way to Lansing,” Whitmer said. “Whether it’s misogyny in the workplace or threats of violence online, this is unacceptable. Let’s debate. Let’s disagree. But then let’s all live up to our responsibility to stand up to hate and harassment. Remember, our children are watching.”

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Sen. Mallory McMorrow at the State of the State address, Jan. 29, 2020 | Andrew Roth

Bonding for roads: ‘Time for Plan B’

At the forefront of Whitmer’s 2020 agenda is a new funding plan to fix Michigan’s roads. That comes after her 45-cent gas tax hike was torpedoed in the GOP-led Legislature, something she acknowledged in her speech.

“Last year, I proposed a real solution that would have fixed our roads by 2030 and freed up funds for education spending,” Whitmer said. “That was Plan A. It was a serious solution. … But some thought otherwise. Let’s just say it wasn’t warmly embraced.”

Whitmer made several not-so-subtle swipes at GOP leadership for blocking her road-funding solution and not introducing any “serious” ones of their own. She lambasted them for thinking that “diverting money from the teacher pension system to fill some potholes” is a realistic long-term solution.

“Any proposal that creates more problems than it solves is not a serious solution,” she said.

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Whitmer then delved into her new plan for road and bridge repairs, which, as expected, will rely on executive action rather than waiting for the state Legislature to get on board or shooting for another tax hike.

“Tomorrow, I will ask the State Transportation Commission to issue state road bonds, so we can start fixing the roads now,” Whitmer said.

The plan she laid out, called “Rebuilding Michigan,” calls for $3.5 billion in bonds, which will finance 122 major repair projects for state roads while interest rates are low.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (front center), Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (left), Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist (back center) and House Speaker Lee Chatfield (right) at the State of the State address, Jan. 29, 2020 | Andrew Roth

“So from now on, when you see orange barrels on a state road: Slow down, and know that it’s this administration, fixing the damn roads,” Whitmer quipped.

She emphasized that this will only apply to Michigan’s most highly traveled state roads, not to any county or local roads. Whitmer argued that action from the Legislature is still needed to come up with a real, long-term funding solution for everywhere else.

“So next time you’re driving down your local street and hit a pothole or see a bridge closed, call up the leadership in this building and encourage them to act,” Whitmer said.

‘Doubling down’ on education 

Another issue topping Whitmer’s list in 2020 is education, namely through early literacy and equity in education. 

“Michigan ranks in the bottom 10 states for overall literacy,” Whitmer said. “We’re doing something about that, too. This year, we’re doubling down on the commitment to invest in early literacy.”

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer at the State of the State address, Jan. 29, 2020 | Andrew Roth

But Whitmer said Republican former Gov. Rick Snyder’s Read by Grade Three law, which requires school districts to hold back students who do not meet reading proficiency standards, is not the solution to the issue. 

“This punitive law could be a nightmare for families,” Whitmer said. “We can get ahead of this problem if we start early. But our work cannot stop with early literacy.”

In her Fiscal Year 2020 budget proposal, Whitmer proposed a $500 million increase for K-12 schools and rolled out a weighted funding plan for students with special education needs and economically disadvantaged students. She told the Advance Tuesday she believes that’s the best approach to improve public education.  

“All Michigan students should have the opportunity to go to properly funded schools. The one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work. Any teacher can tell you that every student has potential, but their needs are often different,” Whitmer said. “This year, together we moved toward an equitable funding formula. Equitable funding is essential to meeting the needs of our at-risk students and students with special needs, ensuring that every child gets the skills to graduate and succeed in our workforce.”

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Economy improving, but leaves some Michiganders out

Whitmer wasn’t afraid to boast a bit about the almost 11,000 new auto jobs announced during her first year as governor, which is five times more than the previous year.

Since she took office, the state cut deals with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, Ford Motor Co. and General Motors, which in total is investing about $6.7 billion into the state, opening up facilities in Detroit and Hamtramck and setting Michigan up to be a leader in the electric vehicle industry. 

But Whitmer said that although the economy is on an upswing, a large number of Michiganders can’t afford basic expenses. To tackle this, Whitmer is expanding workers’ rights, including the right to overtime pay for tens of thousands of Michigan workers. 

“When I was growing up, if you worked more than 40 hours a week, you were paid overtime. It was that simple. It should still be that simple. If you’re working extra hours — sacrificing time with your loved ones on behalf of your employer — you deserve to get paid for that,” Whitmer said. “Right now, only workers making $35,000 or less have overtime rights. That threshold is too low. As it stands, only one in six salaried workers in Michigan benefits.”

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Whitmer also plans to propose boosts to childcare programs in her FY 2021 budget plan, as the Advance first reported, something Small Business Association of Michigan (SBAM) President Brian Calley said would garner the support of many in the business community.

Health care to protect most vulnerable Michiganders

In the health care realm, Whitmer said that Michigan’s 2014 Medicaid expansion — which she helped enact while state Senate minority leader — was a positive for the state, but more must be done to ensure residents have access to affordable, quality health coverage.

She also denounced the Trump administration’s efforts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act (ACA), saying that taking away some of its key provisions — like preventing insurance companies from denying coverage to those with pre-existing conditions — would prove “devastating” for Michiganders.

“Without that provision, the coverage of millions of people in our state could be at risk. We need to enshrine these protections in our law,” Whitmer said, applauding the efforts of state representatives who have introduced legislation on that front.

Whitmer said she plans to create a task force on prescription drug transparency and lowering costs in the coming months as part of her goal to make health care more affordable for Michiganders.

As the Advance first reported, she also announced a new plan in her upcoming FY 2021 budget proposal that will extend protections for new mothers and babies, particularly for women of color. The plan will additionally improve access to substance abuse treatment and mental health services for mothers.

African-Americans want Whitmer to tackle jobs, health care before roads

“This year, my budget proposal will extend health coverage for low-income women who have had babies. We will extend postpartum care from 60 days to one full year after giving birth, and move up a woman’s first postpartum visit to within three weeks, with a comprehensive visit within 12 weeks,” Whitmer said. 

She added that she also aims to ensure that women have access to the birth control that works best for them, as well as the coverage to pay for it.

Whitmer spoke about the need to eliminate racial disparities in health care, which is a big problem in Michigan, where infant and maternal mortality rates are higher for African Americans. 

“Right now, Black women in Michigan are three times more likely than white women to die of pregnancy-related causes. This is a staggering disparity. So I’m working with Michigan’s medical community to address it,” Whitmer said.

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson (left), Attorney General Dana Nessel (center) and Chief Justice Bridge McCormack (right) at the State of the State address, Jan. 29, 2020 | Andrew Roth

Whitmer will seek to address this disparity by incorporating implicit bias training into medical school curriculums and promoting equity in health outcomes.

Throughout the governor’s address, she continuously urged the legislators in the audience to “do something” about the obstacles ahead, rather than dispute them. 

“The people of Michigan are on the move. And it’s time for Lansing to catch up,” Whitmer said. “It’s time for action. Let’s get to work. Let’s move some dirt.”

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Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins

Laina G. Stebbins covers the environment, Native issues and criminal justice for the Advance. A lifelong Michigander, she is a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, where she served as Founding Editor of The Tab Michigan State and as a reporter for the Capital News Service.

Allison R. Donahue
Allison R. Donahue

Allison R. Donahue is a former Michigan Advance reporter who covered education, women's issues and LGBTQ issues. Previously, she was a suburbs reporter at the St. Cloud Times in St. Cloud, Minn., covering local education and government. As a graduate of Grand Valley State University, she has previous experience as a freelance researcher for USA Today and an intern with WOOD TV-8. When she is away from her desk, she spends her time going to concerts, comedy shows or getting lost on hikes in different places around the world.