Column: After economic and criminal justice wins, here’s what Michigan leaders should focus on in 2020

February 6, 2020 8:15 am

Michigan Capitol | Getty Images

What a difference a year makes. This time last winter, Michigan was enduring a historic cold snap. And we were coming off of a major election, starting a new legislative session and a new governor’s term. And the Michigan League for Public Policy was launching our Owner’s Manual for Michigan to help guide them. 

We’ve certainly seen a change in our literal climate, as we’re now flirting with 50 degree days and sunshine. As far as political climates go, we’re gearing up for another big election and looking back on the highs and lows of Michigan’s first year of shared political power in nearly a decade. And we’re taking this time to reflect on and evaluate our Owner’s Manual’s impact in Lansing and its resonance around the state.

As a refresher, the Owner’s Manual is a plan the League put together to provide a vision of what Michigan could be with the right investments.

To that end, the Owner’s Manual covers four broad areas — Healthy CommunitiesThriving FamiliesStrong Workers and Top-Notch Education — and a number of specific policy recommendations within each of those categories. 

These policies were created with the help of residents from around the state and representing all different ages, races and ethnicities, backgrounds and experiences. And the final product was delivered to all 110 Michigan legislators, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and her staff, and countless new department heads and advisors.

As we continue our Owner’s Manual’s automotive theme, it’s time to run some diagnostics to see if our policy priorities have been firing on all cylinders and things have been running smoothly so far.

The question is simple: Have we been getting things done on behalf of the people of Michigan? We’re happy to report that we’ve made it pretty far on this first leg of the drive.

Working alongside some great partners, we helped raise the age of Michigan’s juvenile court jurisdiction from 17 years old to 18. This has been a key issue for the League and our Kids Count work over the past few years and this is a win for kids, families and all of Michigan. Treating justice-involved 17-year-olds as juveniles helps protect these kids physically, mentally and emotionally, and improves their chances of rehabilitation as well as their educational, professional and financial opportunities.

Another victory for Michigan residents in 2019 was increasing the asset test limit for public assistance programs. With input from the League, which has been working on the issue since 2012, Whitmer and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) are increasing the asset test limit for the state’s cash, food and heating assistance programs to $15,000. 

After President Donald Trump’s federal overtime change left behind around 200,000 Michigan workers that the former Obama administration’s rule would have included, the League’s advocacy also helped draw attention to this major oversight. Whitmer and the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity are working to address this issue and make more workers eligible at the state level and get the threshold closer to what President Barack Obama had intended.

Progress on these priorities from our Owner’s Manual is certainly noteworthy, and we hope it are a sign of many more things to come. Whitmer’s State of the State address and upcoming budget presentation certainly bode well for our other areas of emphasis — and what we continue to hear from residents.

As we talk with communities around the state, today’s outrageous childcare costs come up over and over again. The expense of childcare is debilitating for many families, and in a lot of cases is more than parents earn. Childcare is a key policy solution in a two-generation approach that helps parents and kids — one that prepares our kids to thrive in school and beyond. We are pleased to be working with the governor, current and former lawmakers, and partners to make sure childcare is a priority.

The health of moms and babies is an important indicator of a state’s overall well-being, and is another focus of our policy agenda. And quite frankly, Michigan is not doing well in this area. The state’s infant mortality rate—we rank 38th in the nation — is deeply troubling, especially for babies of color. 

And 44% of maternal deaths are preventable. It’s 2020, and our babies and mothers shouldn’t still be at such high risk. That’s why maternal and child health is part of our Owner’s Manual, our Kids Count work and our 2021 budget priorities. We are pleased the governor is addressing this issue and we hope the Legislature will share her concerns for moms and babies and make maternal health funding a priority.

We also applaud the governor for her work on adult education. We know from our work on the Owner’s Manual that Michigan’s older workers need to go back to school to better prepare for the new job market and earn more money, but the cost continues to be a huge barrier. Whitmer’s bold goal of 60% of residents getting some type of higher education certificate by 2030, and Michigan Reconnect and MI Opportunity, are great ways to get us there. We hope legislators from all over the state recognize this growing problem and work with the governor to address it.

Too many people in our state are working but not making enough to survive, let alone thrive, and the real-world struggles and kitchen-table budgeting of Michiganders are too often overlooked in state policy decisions.

Our Owner’s Manual for Michigan was designed to change that. It continues to be driven by the people of Michigan, and we hope it can continue to steer our state in the right direction.

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Gilda Z. Jacobs
Gilda Z. Jacobs

Gilda Z. Jacobs has dedicated her life to helping others, working as an educator, helping provide housing for people with disabilities, serving in state and local government for 30 years, including 12 in the Michigan Legislature. She is the Michigan League for Public Policy's former President and CEO.