Whitmer, Dixon talk inflation, voting access and the pension tax during AARP event

By: - October 7, 2022 2:23 pm

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (left) and GOP gubernatorial nominee Tudor Dixon (right) | Andrew Roth

It wasn’t a debate, but GOP gubernatorial nominee Tudor Dixon and Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer recently sat down for a conversation on a variety of issues, ranging from inflation to voting rights.

The forum, hosted by AARP of Michigan, was moderated by Shari Jones of WLNS-TV in Lansing, which aired the conservation.

The questions, which were based on issues identified in a recent AARP poll as being most important to Michigan voters, began by asking each candidate how they planned to provide relief to Michiganders struggling with inflation and rising prices.

Whitmer noted that while inflation was not something she could control as the governor of Michigan, she argued that her administration has been providing economic relief to residents.

“We’ve done that in the form of returning $400 to motorists, for every car that is insured,” said Whitmer, referencing the 2019 bipartisan automotive insurance reform. However, that same reform has also drawn criticism for cutting back on promised lifetime care for victims of catastrophic auto crashes.

Whitmer signing the no-fault bill
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signs the auto insurance reform bill with House Speaker Lee Chatfield, House Minority Leader Christine Greig, Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey and Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich | Nick Manes

Whitmer said she had also delivered a state budget that puts the state’s fiscal house in order. 

“We’ve paid down $14 billion of debt, put $1.6 billion in our rainy day fund?” she said. “And because of that, we’ve been able to make investments at lower costs for families.”

However, Whitmer indicated that an important goal yet to be realized is a repeal of the state’s retirement tax that her predecessor, GOP former Gov. Rick Snyder, signed in 2011. 

“That is a way that we can put more money in seniors’ pockets who are living on fixed incomes,” she said. “I also have promoted increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit. This is for working people who are showing up at work every single day, but don’t make enough to take care of their families. This is how we give families and individuals in Michigan relief right now.”

Dixon focused her answer around a single solution: Keeping the aging Line 5 propane pipeline in operation.

“When we look at one of the No. 1 cost that people have fluctuating in their life right now, it’s energy,” said Dixon. “So first and foremost, we want to make sure that Line 5 is protected because that would be the number one way our energy costs would rise.”

Supporters of the Line 5 pipeline that runs underneath the Straits of Mackinac contend its shutdown would result in higher propane costs, especially for residents of the Upper Peninsula although several studies indicate there would be minimal increases. Opponents, including Whitmer, say the resulting environmental and economic devastation of a leak from the nearly 70-year-old pipeline would be far worse.

“Right now we’re looking at energy costs rising for heating your home, also rising for putting gas in your car,” continued Dixon. “You’re seeing gas prices increase and also for airline tickets. If you want to go on a vacation, even that’s rising costs. So we want to make sure that we are keeping our energy costs low by protecting Line 5, but ultimately lowering energy costs in the state of Michigan overall, because our energy costs are where we see rising prices at the grocery store and rising prices at the clothing store, as well.”

A sign in the U.P. supporting Enbridge’s Line 5 tunnel | Susan J. Demas

While an AARP poll found 58% of Michigan women voters over age 50 said they were much more likely to support a candidate who favored expanding voting access, when asked her stance on the issue, Dixon used the opportunity to instead talk about voter fraud.

“We’ve seen opportunities for fraud in the voting system,” said Dixon, who has denied the results of the 2020 presidential election that President Joe Biden won. “So we want to make sure that we are tough on fraud. If we do have fraud in this system, that we have harsh penalties for that. When we have absentee ballots, we want to make sure that the signature match is required and that the signature match is strong. And if you do find folks that are forging signatures, that we have harsh penalties for signature forging.”

Ironically, forged signatures proved to be a problem for Michigan Republicans this year, as five of Dixon’s GOP gubernatorial opponents were kicked off of the primary ballot after thousands of signatures on their nominating petitions were determined to have been fraudulent.

Whitmer, in contrast, hailed the increase in voter turnout during a pandemic and said she had been actively fighting GOP efforts to disenfranchise Michigan voters.

“I’ve vetoed all of the proposals that come to my desk to make it more difficult for people to vote,” she said.

As an example, Whitmer cited the use of provisional ballots.

“We require ID in order to vote, but if for some reason your pocketbook was misplaced or you didn’t have your driver’s license, when you show up, you’re allowed to sign an affidavit,” said Whitmer. 

“You sign your signature on it and before your vote gets counted, it gets compared to the registered voter file. That has been our fail safe in Michigan. 18,000 people used that way of participating in this last presidential election. There’s an effort by the Legislature to strip that right away from voters. I vetoed it because we’ve found no abuse in it and it has been a critical component to permitting people to participate in this democracy. So I’m always going to fight for increased access to the ballot.”

Another issue that was discussed was repealing the state’s pension tax.

Despite being passed by the GOP-led Legislature in 2011 and signed into law by Snyder, Dixon laid the blame for its continued existence entirely at the feet of Whitmer — who voted against it while serving in the Senate.

GOP gubernatorial nominee Tudor Dixon at a Sept. 27, 2022 press conference in Lansing | Laina G. Stebbins

“I believe the pension tax should be repealed,” she said. “We were promised this in 2018. Governor Whitmer came out and said that the pension tax would be repealed. She still hasn’t been able to do that even though she’s had bills that have been sponsored by Republicans. So this is a huge opportunity for us, but we want to make sure we have fairness and relief for all seniors. So to do that, we want to make sure that we have an increase, we increase the exemptions for all seniors on all income that they’re bringing in because we don’t want just relief for some, we want relief for all.”

The bills referenced by Dixon were part of a broader tax cut package that would have increased the tax exemption for seniors up to $40,000 for individuals and $80,000 for couples, while lowering the qualifying age threshold for a tax exemption from 67 to 62.

Whitmer vetoed the package after an analysis from the nonpartisan Senate Fiscal Agency determined the bill would cut revenue to the General Fund and School Aid Fund by more than $6.5 billion by 2024. 

In her veto letter, Whitmer said those reductions would result in “deep and painful cuts to services,” including “layoffs of cops and firefighters, and kneecap our ability to keep fixing crumbling roads.”

Whitmer used her time on that question to reinforce that the pension tax was a Republican plan passed by a Republican-led Legislature and signed into law by a Republican governor.

“We can’t forget that this was a decision by the last administration to give business a break and they paid for it by taxing retirement, cutting public education and eliminating or bringing down the earned income tax credit for the working poor,” said Whitmer. “That’s precisely why I think it’s done a disservice to people that need help the most. One of the things I’ve built into these budgets is repealing this retirement tax and I am determined to make sure we get it done.”

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Jon King
Jon King

Jon King has been a journalist for more than 35 years. He is the Past President of the Michigan Associated Press Media Editors Association and has been recognized for excellence numerous times, most recently in 2021 with the Best Investigative Story by the Michigan Association of Broadcasters. He is also an adjunct faculty member at Cleary University. Jon and his family live in Howell, where he also serves on the Board of Directors for the Livingston Diversity Council.