Construction, Education, and Government

Gov. Whitmer promises she won’t be deterred

In Econ Club speech, Whitmer said she is compromising on road funding plan — for now — to avoid a government shutdown.

September 13, 2019
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Gretchen Whitmer
Gov Gretchen Whitmer said she sees clean water, infrastructure, and K-12 and higher education as the state’s most pressing issues. Courtesy Russell Climie, Tiberius Images

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer stopped in town Sept. 9 to speak to the Economic Club of Grand Rapids on her fiscal priorities amid ongoing state budget negotiations.

Her talk at the JW Marriott in downtown Grand Rapids focused largely on what she sees as the state’s most pressing issues — clean water, infrastructure, and K-12 and higher education.

But she also referenced an announcement earlier in the day that she has agreed to work with legislative leaders to pass a 2020 state budget before Oct. 1 — with or without a road funding deal — in order to avoid a partial government shutdown.

“(Last week), we announced that we’re going to continue the (infrastructure) conversation, but we’re still going to get a budget done on time,” Whitmer said.

Whitmer hasn’t forgotten her plan to fix the roads. She argued that GOP opposition to her plan to raise additional revenues for infrastructure will prolong a “shell game” in which the state is forced to keep dipping into the general fund to pay for “critical” road repairs, robbing it of dollars that could otherwise go to colleges and universities, and forcing higher education institutions to continue raiding the school aid fund, diverting millions of dollars away from K-12 schools.

“The most important thing that we need to do as a state is ensure that we meet the foundational needs of our people,” she said, noting education is one of them.

When Whitmer introduced her budget plan in March, it included a proposed 3% funding increase for higher education that would amount to about $1.7 billion. Counter proposals from the House and Senate during budget talks have allocated “significantly less,” she said.

The cost of higher education has soared since the late 1980s when Whitmer started college, and she said a 3% increase would be “a big step forward” in reversing the trend.

“When I left Grand Rapids to go to Michigan State, at that point in time … the state picked up 70% of the student’s tuition, and it was up to us to come up with the other 30% through scholarships or loans, however we pieced it together,” she said.

“Now, it’s exactly the opposite. The whole cost of getting a higher-educated population is borne essentially by the individual seeking it. And it’s been a complete barrier for a lot of people to even go into a four-year degree.”

Whitmer said the 3% jump would be the biggest increase state universities have seen in decades. 

“I wanted to make this statement because higher education is a priority to me; it’s a priority to our economy, and it is a priority to ensuring that we’ve got a concentration of talent to draw investment into Michigan,” she said.

Whitmer added K-12 school performance is at an all-time low, as funding has not kept pace with needs.

“Forty-nine other states are better educating their kids to become readers than the state of Michigan is right now, and it’s not because our kids have any less aptitude; it’s not because our educators have any less dedication. It’s a reflection of us not prioritizing education in our budget and in our policymaking,” she said.

It’s too soon to count on higher education funding increases or to bank on her proposed $507 million increase to K-12 education spending in the next fiscal year.

But Whitmer touted other accomplishments made since she took office in January that she believes will positively impact Michigan’s business owners and citizens. She:

  • Signed an executive directive during her first month in office to expand opportunities for “geographically disadvantaged businesses” and allow them to have a fair shot at competing for state contracts.

  • Signed an executive order to ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity in the state government because “when we show the world that Michigan is a place where there is opportunity for all, that we are inclusive, it works to the benefit of our business community, as well, and boosts our economy.”

  • Created the Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity (LEO) to ensure every Michigander has a path to a good job and appointed Jeff Donofrio, former executive director of workforce development for Mike Duggan, to lead it. Under Donofrio’s leadership in the mayor’s office, 20,000 new jobs were created in Detroit, Whitmer said. “We have over 500,000 high-wage jobs that are going to need to be filled by 2026, and at this juncture, only 45% of our adult population has a postsecondary degree or certificate. Closing that skills gap, getting us to the 60% that I said was our stated goal when I gave the State of the State in February, is essential, not just for businesses that are here and have anticipated needs but to draw investment into our state. It’s essential to raise the incomes of hardworking people across the state who want to take care of their families and simply lack the ability to get the skills they need,” she said.

  • Made several investments in the first six months of her term, including closing a deal with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles to build an assembly plant in Detroit that will create 6,500 jobs and add $4.5 billion to the state’s economy.

Whitmer said her administration also is working on undisclosed “economic development opportunities” on the west side of the state.

Despite the many challenges Michigan faces, Whitmer said she is optimistic.

“We have a lot of work to do in this state, but I am proud to say that I am the governor of Michigan because the best part about the state is the people who call it home. We are on the move. We are open for business. We are going to retain our edge in mobility and in manufacturing, and we are also going to show the world that we are the best stewards of water because we have 21% of the world’s freshwater right here in and around Michigan,” she said.

“These are the critical things that I will stay focused on, and I hope that you all join in — jump in — because every one of you is impacted by the work that we’re doing.”

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