In State of the State speech, Whitmer offers GOP olive branch after they spent day trying to stymie her powers

By: - January 27, 2021 9:44 pm

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer gives her third State of the State address, Jan. 27, 2021 | Whitmer office photo

In Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s third State of the State address — and Michigan’s first-ever fully virtual yearly speech — the Democratic governor took on a hopeful tone, encouraging GOP legislative leaders to work with her on behalf of Michiganders to build back from the damage caused by COVID-19 and other challenges to the state in 2020.

Despite a pandemic, widespread protests against racial inequity, economic hardships, a 500-year flooding event and a divisive election in 2020, “the state of our state is resilient,” Whitmer said.

Whitmer’s unifying tone came in spite of actions from Republicans earlier on Wednesday that set the scene for a bitter showdown over pandemic relief funding and upcoming budget talks. While the GOP House majority pledged to withhold $2.1 billion in school funding unless Whitmer surrendered certain executive powers during the pandemic, the GOP-led Senate rejected 13 of Whitmer’s appointees solely to “send a signal” of displeasure with the governor’s actions.

Several hours prior to Whitmer’s address, Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) and House Speaker Jason Wentworth (R-Clare) also released a joint statement “setting expectations” for what they wanted to hear in the speech, including an acknowledgement from Whitmer that “it is time to lift her unnecessary restrictions.”

Most businesses have been reopened for weeks, and restaurants are set to allow indoor dining again starting Monday with restrictions. Despite this, Republicans chided her for “continued closures.” GOP legislative leaders are set to host a press conference responding to Whitmer’s speech on Thursday.

“Based on the political environment this past year, you might think Republicans and Democrats in Lansing can’t find common ground on much of anything. But the reality is: despite all these crises, and the gridlock in Washington, we took real bipartisan action to get things done for you and your family,” Whitmer said, asking Republicans to work with her and build on that progress together.

Whitmer reflected on the year 2020 as an “annus horribilis,” Latin for “horrible year.” She began her speech by remembering the 14,411 Michiganders lost to COVID-19 as of Wednesday and the pain of their grieving families.

“Every day, I think about the people who lost loved ones to this virus,” Whitmer said. “Those who said goodbye to their parents over Zoom because it was too dangerous to go to the hospital. The spouses who sleep alone for the first time in years. The Michiganders who still haven’t properly mourned.”

She said that despite countless tragedies, Michigan residents and businesses have stepped up to make the state a leading model for others battling the pandemic. Whitmer thanked frontline essential workers and reminded Michiganders to keep masking up and social distancing even after they are vaccinated to protect against the new COVID-19 variant.

“Michigan leads the nation in reducing racial disparities of this pandemic, and the [President Joe] Biden-[Vice President Kamala]Harris administration established its own COVID Equity Task Force modeled after ours,” Whitmer said, thanking Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) Chief Medical Executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun for leading the effort to tackle racial inequalities exposed by COVID-19.

Although Michigan does not yet have enough vaccines, there is a plan in place to get “50,000 shots in arms per day” once that supply is available, she said. Whitmer reiterated her goal to inoculate at least 70% of the population ages 16 and older as soon as possible.

In the meantime, Michigan is seventh in the nation for number of COVID-19 tests performed (more than 9.6 million) and sixth in the nation for number of vaccines distributed (more than 800,000).

“The number of vaccines we have administered has surpassed the number of recorded cases in Michigan,” Whitmer said.

“… This process is like a locomotive – it will be cumbersome and slow in the beginning, but it will get faster and smoother as we go. I just ask for patience as our frontline workers work around the clock to get shots in arms.”

Whitmer also spent time congratulating lawmakers on notable bipartisan action over the last year, including a budget, a number of long-awaited criminal justice reform bills and the Michigan Reconnect job training program.

Acknowledging that the pandemic has taken a big toll on small businesses, which she said the federal government under former President Donald Trump had failed to alleviate, Whitmer spoke about state-based relief money aimed at helping those businesses.

Last month, Whitmer signed a $106 million relief bill that directed $55 million to small businesses. Last week, she announced her $5.6 billion Michigan COVID Recovery Plan to build on that, including a call for the state Legislature to permanently extend unemployment benefits from 20 to 26 weeks.

“This would bring Michigan in line with 40 other states and provide hard-hit Michigan workers with the financial security and peace of mind they deserve,” Whitmer said, encouraging state lawmakers to pass the plan “immediately.”

Whitmer also acknowledged the significant disruption COVID-19 has had on Michigan’s education system, students and teachers. Her administration recently set a goal for each school to provide an in-person learning option by March 1.

Whitmer said she plans to provide more support for schools in her upcoming budget proposal next month.

As the Advance first reported Wednesday, Whitmer also unveiled the MI Classroom Heroes Grants program which will reward grants of up to $500 each for teachers and $250 for support staff.

Another 2021 priority for the Whitmer administration: Creating more Michigan jobs. Whitmer rolled out a “Michigan Back to Work” plan Wednesday aimed at leveraging the state government’s resources to provide projects and initiatives that will grow and maintain good-paying jobs.

“I know the Biden administration is deeply committed to following science, protecting public health, and building our economy back better. I am eager to work with President Biden, Vice President Harris, and our congressional delegation to end this pandemic and ramp up our economy. And I will continue reaching out to Republicans here in Lansing,” Whitmer said.

Whitmer also said she made progress on her top 2018 campaign promise to “fix the damn roads” in 2020, despite the year’s challenges, and named several highway and bridge projects that were completed during the pandemic.

“I know you’re used to me saying, ‘Fix the damn roads.’ This year, let’s also fix the damn road ahead – find common ground to grow our economy and get families and businesses back on their feet,” Whitmer said.

She then called again on the state Legislature to pass water infrastructure bills introduced last year, which environmental groups like the National Wildlife Federation and Michigan League of Conservation Voters praised in statements after the speech.

Continuing on the theme of unity, Whitmer said she plans to launch a “Fixing the Damn Road Ahead” statewide tour to engage Michiganders and find common ground.

“Now, to the legislative leaders tuning in: our job now is to fix the damn road ahead — together,” Whitmer said.

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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.