LANSING — It was a different kind of State of the State address on Wednesday night for Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who outlined priority plans for targeted tax relief, gun reforms, LGBTQ rights, universal preschool and more.
For the first time in five years, the East Lansing Democrat delivered her annual mission-statement before Democratic majorities in the Michigan Legislature, again urging bipartisan cooperation but this time exuding confidence she may not need Republicans for every vote.
“My fellow Michiganders, we spoke with a clear voice in November,” Whitmer said in a roughly 50-minute speech before a joint session of the state House and Senate.
“We want the ability to raise a family without breaking the bank,” she continued. “Strong protections for our fundamental rights to vote and control our own bodies. Leaders who will work across the aisle to solve problems and deliver on the issues that make a real difference in our lives.”
- Gretchen Whitmer on guns: ‘The time for only thoughts and prayers is over.’
- Gretchen Whitmer: Free Michigan community college for students over 21
To be sure, Whitmer will still face hurdles as she seeks to advance her agenda in the Capitol, where Democrats have a narrow, two-seat advantage in each chamber.
That was evident late Tuesday, when state Rep. Joey Andrews of St. Joseph had to leave his newborn baby to cast a deciding vote on a budget bill that Republicans refused to support on procedural grounds.
But a day later, Whitmer asked lawmakers to join forces as “happy warriors” in a speech that began with a video segment showcasing the late-season turnaround of the historically hapless Detroit Lions.
“As the world grapples with big challenges and asks itself tough questions, our responsibility as Michiganders is to roll up our sleeves and do the work,” Whitmer said.”… Let’s show everyone that the cure for cynicism is competence.”
Read on to find out what the governor proposed, their prospects for success and what research says about the proposals.
Universal preschool: Free for all four-year-olds
Whitmer asked lawmakers to create a universal preschool program by expanding the Great Start Readiness Program to cover all 4-year-old children in the state within the next four years, about 110,000 kids.
Currently, the program covers costs for students in lower-income families that earn up to 250 percent of the federal poverty level, about $66,000 for a family of four.
Making the program universal is an idea Whitmer first proposed in 2019, but one she now hopes to achieve with the state’s new Democratic-controlled Legislature. Families could save an average of $10,000 a year in child care costs, she said.
“Unfortunately, affordable preschool is hard to find right now,” Whitmer said. “We were fortunate because we had access and could afford preschool. Every parent and every child in Michigan deserves the same because we all want what’s best for our kids.”
The cost: Will depend on how fast lawmakers decide to phase in universal pre-school but could eventually run “in the hundreds of millions of dollars,” according to Whitmer spokesperson Bobby Leddy.
Potential obstacles: Price. Michigan has a roughly $9 billion surplus, but Whitmer and lawmakers will have to decide how to allocate that money during upcoming budget negotiations. Whitmer will unveil her budget plan next month.
Universal preschool and other education proposals from the governor “sound nice,” but she gave absolutely no explanation of how they’re going to be paid for,” state Rep. Andrew Fink, R-Adams Township, said after Whitmer’s speech.
- Whitmer wants universal pre-K. Are there enough teachers?
- State-funded preschool: Winner for parents, financial loser for schools
- Tulsa study, praising long-term value of preschool
- Vanderbilt study, impact of gains from preschool may fade
Gun legislation: Red flags and universal background checks
Whitmer asked lawmakers to enact a “safe storage law” for gun owners and have Michigan join 19 other states that have already adopted so-called red flag gun confiscation laws, which allow judges to issue an “extreme risk protection orders” for police to remove guns from someone who may hurt themselves or others.
The governor also said she wants “universal background checks” to ensure people who have a criminal record or are otherwise ineligible cannot buy guns. Past Democratic bills have proposed expanding the state’s licensing process for pistols to require background checks for all guns, not just those sold through federally licensed dealers.
“The time for only thoughts and prayers is over,” Whitmer said to loud applause. “It’s time for commonsense action to reduce gun violence in our communities.”
Potential obstacles: Gun rights advocates – including some Republicans lawmakers – warn that the proposals amount to an attack on Second Amendment rights. Without any GOP support, Democrats could only lose one vote in each chamber if they want to pass the legislation.
Studies on the effect of those gun reform measures have been mixed.
While some show safe storage laws could reduce gun-related injuries and deaths, research on the other two laws was less promising. That’s partly because some states only started implementing those laws in recent years, and funding for such studies was restricted, scholars have said.
- What studies say about gun control measures proposed by Democrats
- Michigan schools increase safety through high tech, mental health
- Can ‘red flag’ laws gain traction in Michigan?
- Associated Press analysis finding red flag laws rarely used
Tax relief: Worker credit expansion, pension tax repeal
Whitmer has long wanted targeted tax relief for low-income workers and seniors, which she dubbed the “Lowering MI Costs” plan in Wednesday’s speech.
Repealing the so-called “retirement tax” on senior pensions, she said, will save 500,000 households an average of $1,000 per year. Expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit “will put hundreds of millions back in family budgets to help with rent, school supplies and food on the table,” Whitmer added, noting the credit especially benefits single moms.
“It is, in the words of President Reagan, ‘the best anti-poverty, the best pro-family, the best job creation measure,’” Whitmer said, invoking a Republican president.
The Democratic-led Senate is already acting on related bills, moving legislation that would immediately expand the Earned Income Tax Credit for lower-income workers to 30 percent of the federal level. House Democrats proposed a more modest 20 percent credit.
The expansion would save the average recipient $350 to $600 per year.
A separate bill advanced out of a Senate committee Wednesday would restore tax exemptions for public pensions, private pensions and some 401k withdrawals the state eliminated in 2011 under then-Gov. Rick Snyder.
Cost: $800 million to $1 billion for the Democratic plans, depending on the version, and lawmakers are estimating closer to $1.6 billion if revenues trigger a 2015 law that will also require a cut to the state’s 4.25 percent income tax.
Potential obstacles: Republicans contend the proposals are too narrow, calling for expanded tax exemptions on all forms of senior income and championing a broader income tax cut. The GOP wants a “simple plan that will treat all people fairly,” said House Minority Leader Matt Hall, R-Richland Township.
The retirement tax exemptions proposed by Democrats are already “pretty expansive,” sponsoring Sen. Kevin Hertel, D-St. Clair Shores. “We designed it to be that way, but I’m willing to talk with anybody about how it can be better.”
- Who benefits more from tax cut plans?
- Democrats want quick action on tax cuts
- Study: Earned Income Tax Credit one of ‘largest anti-poverty programs’
- Study: Some indication expanding credit could improve health
K-12 student help: Tutoring and after-school programs
Whitmer is again calling for new tutoring and after-school programs to help children recover from pandemic-era learning losses and improve academically, and she’s hoping the new Democratic-controlled Legislature will fund them.
It’s been a long time coming. Whitmer in 2021 vetoed a GOP tutoring scholarship program that public school advocates criticized as too similar to private education vouchers.
The governor last year proposed her own $280 million “Get MI Kids Back on Track” plan, which Republicans did not include in their budget. Now, she’s asking lawmakers to fund the program “before spring break.”
Cost: $280 million, if Whitmer’s previous request is any indication. She did not specify a dollar amount in her speech.
Potential obstacles: Price will be a consideration, but it’s also unclear whether Whitmer can win support from Republicans still fuming that she vetoed their tutoring plan two years ago. If not, she’ll need every Democrat to back the plan.
Free tuition: Expand Michigan Reconnect
Whitmer asked lawmakers to help her expand her Michigan Reconnect program for tuition-free community college or skills training school by allowing residents as young as 21-years-old to qualify, down from the current 25-years-old minimum.
More than 110,000 Michiganders have been accepted to the program, with about 18,000 in community college. Ahead of the speech, Whitmer told Crain’s the expansion could benefit “tens of thousands more.”
Cost: It’s not yet clear how much expansion could cost the state, or if Whitmer will push for an immediate change or phased-in approach.
Obstacles: Cost. That’s the only real main hurdle for expansion of a program that was created with bipartisan support. Republicans helped Whitmer create Reconnect and have touted it as a way to train workers to fill open job slots across the state.
- Free college tuition: Which schools offer what?
- What to know about Michigan’s new community college program
- Michigan advertised free community college. Nearly 170,000 have applied.
Add LGBT protections, remove abortion and marriage bans
With Proposal 3 enshrining abortion rights into the Michigan Constitution, Whitmer called on the Legislature to repeal a dormant 1931 abortion ban.
And while she did not get into specifics, the governor said it is time to “repeal other dangerous laws prohibiting people from accessing reproductive health care or shaming them for seeking it in the first place.”
Whitmer also called on lawmakers to strike the state’s unconstitutional same-sex marriage ban from the books, and codify recent court rulings by adding LGBTQ anti-discrimination protections to state law.
“Protecting these freedoms is the right thing to do and it’s just good economics,” the governor said. “States with extreme laws are losing talent and investment because bigotry is bad for business. We should build on our reputation as a welcoming beacon of opportunity where anyone can succeed.”
Obstacles: Repealing the 1931 abortion ban is likely under a Democratic majority. But Democrats would face resistance from Republicans if they start repealing other abortion regulations that currently exist in state law, including a waiting period between an abortion consultation and procedure and a parental consent requirement for minors seeking an abortion.
There has been some bipartisan support in the past for expanding Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to include protections for LGBTQ residents, but past efforts stalled under a Republican majority. In a new development that could sway some conservatives, the Michigan Chamber of Commerce this week backed expansion as a pro-business policy.
- Michigan Democrats move to strike abortion ban references from state law
- Michigan Democrats eye other abortion law changes as Prop 3 set to take effect
- Laws banning gay marriage, sodomy still on books in Michigan
- Court ruling bans LBTQ discrimination
What you didn’t hear: Right-to-Work repeal
Whitmer has not hidden the fact that she wants to repeal Michigan’s 2012 Right-to-Work law, which bars worker contracts that make union dues or fees a condition of employment.
Democratic legislative leaders are on board too, making repeal bills the fourth and fifth measures introduced in the Michigan House and Senate, respectively.
So why no mention of the pro-union push in the State of the State?
“It’s already a long speech, but everybody knows where I stand on it,” the governor told reporters on Tuesday as she previewed the speech.
Beyond that, the governor knows Right-to-Work is controversial, and she has made clear she is hoping to work with legislative Republicans on other measures before a potentially combative debate that could burn bipartisan bridges.
The intentional State of the State omission was “positive movement” for the governor, said Senate Minority Leader Aric Nesbitt, R-Porter Township, who argues repeal could hurt Michigan’s ability to attract business.
“If she’s serious about economic development and Michigan, if she’s serious about growing the economy, then my hope is that it’s actually taken off the table,” Nesbitt said earlier Wednesday.