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‘Bigotry is bad for business,’ Whitmer declares in her State of the State speech
In her fifth address, the Democrat outlined plans for gun reform, tax relief, pre-K, LGBTQ+ rights and reproductive rights
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer delivers her fifth State of the State address on Jan. 25, 2023. (Andrew Roth/Michigan Advance)
Updated, 11:49 a.m., 2/2/23, 7:39 a.m. 2/3/22
Throughout Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s fifth State of the State address Wednesday night, she drew connections between the many civil rights issues she has championed for years and the need to strengthen the state’s economy.
“Bigotry is bad for business,” Whitmer said before receiving a standing ovation from the crowd of lawmakers and state leaders.
Jobs, education, gun reform and reproductive rights were among the top priorities Whitmer highlighted during her first in-person State of the State address since 2020.
Another major difference between this year’s speech and those in previous years is that Whitmer spoke to a Legislature with a Democratic majority. So her priorities have a better chance of becoming legislation and making it to her desk now that Democrats control the House and Senate.
“We spoke with a clear voice in November. We want the ability to raise a family without breaking the bank, strong protections for our fundamental rights to vote and control our own bodies and leaders who will work across the aisle to solve problems and deliver on the issues that make a real difference in our lives,” Whitmer said.
Whitmer proposed several initiatives to repeal the retirement tax, expand the tax credit for working families, provide universal pre-K for all 4-year-olds in Michigan, invest in jobs and talent programs and increase funding for public safety and education.
“The people of Michigan were the true spotlight of Gov. Whitmer’s address tonight. She focused her message on the grit and good nature of the men and women who make the state of our state strong, and because of them, we have so much to be optimistic about as we look to the future,” said Senate Majority Leader Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids). “It’s a new era in Michigan’s state government. We now have a majority that is determined to bring real solutions to real people, and I am pleased to lead a chamber that is ready to partner with Gov. Whitmer.”
Whitmer went more specific with policy proposals this year than in many past speeches, a sign of the new reality of having a Democratic-controlled Legislature to work with. However, Republicans, who have been adjusting to life in the minority, held two press conferences on Wednesday and took issue with many of Whitmer’s proposals.
The governor rolled out the new Lowering MI Costs plan Wednesday, which includes repealing the state’s retirement tax, which she said will save 500,000 households $1,000 per year.
Under legislation signed by GOP former Gov. Rick Snyder in 2011, Michigan taxes the pensions and 401(k) incomes of the state’s retirees. Whitmer opposed the measure while serving in the Senate. She called for repealing the tax in her first budget proposal in 2019.
Although Republicans also have plans for axing the pension tax, Senate Minority Leader Aric Nesbitt (R-Lawton) called the governor’s plan “convoluted” and said it “picks winners and losers.”
“All seniors should see relief,” Nesbitt said. “And until all seniors see relief, I’m not sold on this plan.”
Whitmer went more specific with policy proposals this year than in many past speeches, a sign of the new reality of having a Democratic-controlled Legislature to work with.
Another aspect of Whitmer’s Lowering MI Costs plan includes expanding the state’s Working Families Tax Credit, formally known as the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), to restore it to 20% after Snyder cut the tax credit to 6% in 2011.
“These two tax changes will right a wrong inflicted on Michiganders 12 years ago. In 2011, seniors and hardworking families had the rug ripped out from under them when the retirement tax was enacted and the Working Families Tax Credit was gutted. It was wrong. Now, we can make it right,” Whitmer said.
Democrats have already started to put this into motion.
House Bill 4002, sponsored by state Rep. Nate Shannon (D-Sterling Heights), calls for restoration of Michigan’s EITC to 20% of the federal credit for 2023 tax year and beyond. Senate Bill 3, sponsored by Sen. Kristen McDonald Rivet (D-Bay City), calls for increasing the EITC incrementally each year up to 30% of the federal credit by 2025. Senate Democrats plan to make this retroactive to the 2022 tax year.
Similar legislation last term garnered bipartisan support, but Republican leadership and Whitmer were unable to make a deal on tax relief before the end of the year.
“First and foremost, Michiganders need relief during these difficult economic times that are defined by a rising cost of living. They need the governor to work for immediate, fair tax relief — plans Republicans have put forward. Democrats may be starting to come around to our ideas to provide immediate relief for Michigan workers and fair, timely relief for seniors, and the governor should help us make this relief a reality,” said House Minority Leader Matt Hall (R-Richland Twp.).
The third part of Whitmer’s Lowering MI Costs plan is universal pre-kindergarten for every 4-year-old in Michigan.
“Gov. Whitmer showed again tonight what being a pro-education governor looks like — and now, with allies in the Legislature, Michigan students and educators can count on desperately needed support to come their way,” said Michigan Education Association (MEA) President Paula Herbart.
In talking about the sacrifices parents make for their kids, Whitmer acknowledged Rep. Joey Andrews (D-St. Joseph), who raced from the hospital after his baby was born Tuesday to vote on a supplemental budget bill Republicans were holding up
“That’s why one of us showed up to work hours after his daughter, Violet, was born yesterday,” she said in her speech, which got a standing ovation from Democrats. “Rep. Andrews, I hope you are enjoying some well-deserved time with your newborn. Congratulations to you and especially Laura, who did all the heavy lifting on that one.”
Another priority laid out by the governor was to attract and keep talent in Michigan by continuing to fund a number of programs she developed, like the 60 by 30 goal to have 60% of people earn a degree or skills certificate by 2030.
Whitmer also said she wants to lower the qualifying age from 25 to 21 for Michigan Reconnect, which provides tuition-free paths to an associate degree or skills certificate.
“The other half of attracting and retaining young people is standing up for their freedoms,” Whitmer said.
She called on repealing the state’s 1931 abortion ban, which is now moot after voters passed Proposal 3 in November and codified reproductive freedom in the state Constitution.
Protecting these freedoms is the right thing to do and it’s just good economics. I’ll go to any state that restricts people’s freedoms and win business and hardworking people from them.
– Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on LGBTQ+ and reproductive rights
“We thank the governor for her ongoing support of expanding access to sexual and reproductive health care, including abortion, so that all Michiganders can get essential health care when and where they need it,” said Nicole Wells Stallworth, executive director of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Michigan. “Reproductive freedom is now permanently enshrined in our state constitution, but there’s still work to be done to break down remaining barriers to care and to remove unnecessary laws from our books. We are grateful to have the Governor’s ongoing support and partnership in this urgent work.”
Rep. Laurie Pohutsky (D-Livonia) and Sen. Erika Geiss (D-Taylor) introduced legislation this month to repeal the 92-year-old abortion ban.
“Prop 3 is so amazing and I’m so glad that we have it in place, but we also need to work on getting rid of other types of restrictions that prevent some people from accessing not just abortion care, but also other forms of reproductive health care,” Pohutksy said.
Whitmer also called on lawmakers to pass legislation to expand the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act (ELCRA). The state Supreme Court ruled in July that the ELCRA prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation.
State Sen. Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield) and state Rep. Jason Hoskins (D-Southfield) introduced legislation earlier this month that would codify into law protections for the LGBTQ+ community against discrimination.
“Protecting these freedoms is the right thing to do and it’s just good economics,” Whitmer said. “I’ll go to any state that restricts people’s freedoms and win business and hardworking people from them.”
The Michigan Chamber, which has deep ties to Republicans, had broken with other business groups that had long supported adding LGBTQ+ to the civil rights law. But the chamber is now on board as the legislation is likely to become law.
Whitmer also called on lawmakers to enact “common-sense” gun reforms, like universal background checks, safe storage laws and extreme risk protection orders, often known as “red flag” laws, citing the Oxford High School shooting in 2021.
“Despite pleas from Oxford families, these issues never even got a hearing in the Legislature. This year, let’s change that and work together to stop the violence and save lives,” Whitmer said.
After the address, Hall said Whitmer’s call for gun reform is “divisive,” and Nesbitt said the state should start with a sales tax exemption on gun safety equipment, such as gun cabinets and trigger locks.
“If she wants to then she can start off in a bipartisan way like that,” Nesbitt said.
Whitmer ended the night calling for bipartisanship and hope for not just Michigan, but for America.
“Over the last four years, we’ve faced historic challenges and seen the visceral consequences of political division. But the prevailing take now seems to be that things will get worse. Fatalism is in vogue as people wonder aloud whether America’s best days are behind her,” Whitmer said. “I reject that. We cannot mistake pessimism for intelligence. And we must never forget who we are.”
Advance reporter Laina G. Stebbins contributed to this story.
Correction: Minority Leader Matt Hall called Whitmer’s call for gun reform “divisive.” The original story misattributed that statement.
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