LANSING − Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer laid out her vision Wednesday night for how she wants Michigan to look by the time she leaves office: free preschool for all 4-year-olds, gun safety laws on the books, tax cuts for seniors and low-income workers and clear protections for LGBTQ residents.
She detailed the policy priorities in her annual State of the State address, the first of her final term.
Whitmer kicked off her speech by acknowledging the economic toll high inflation and rising costs have imposed on residents in the state. "Michiganders are facing the pinch right now," she said. "We are all concerned about making sure we live in a safe neighborhood and have jobs and businesses in our towns next year and next decade."
Her remarks were delivered amid a monumental shift in power in Lansing. This month, Democrats took control of the state Legislature for the first time since 1983, a political transformation in Michigan politics that could give Whitmer a historic opportunity to accomplish her policy goals.
"We spoke with a clear voice in November. We want the ability to raise a family without breaking the bank. We want strong protections for our fundamental rights to vote and control our own bodies," she said.
But Whitmer doesn't see a clear mandate in the results of the most recent election, citing Democrats' narrow two-seat majorities in the state House and Senate. The governor said she wants to work with Republicans, placing a premium on building as much bipartisan support as she can for her policy goals. Voters want leaders who "work across the aisle to solve problems and deliver on the issues that make a real difference in our lives," Whitmer said.
A few of her lines drew applause from both sides of the aisle.
Before the speech, House and Senate Republican leaders said they wanted to hear the governor commit to sweeping tax relief for older Michiganders and pledge to not touch a state income tax rollback that could be triggered by the state's massive budget surplus. As the GOP continues to find its footing in the minority, they hope procedural tools and persuasive arguments help them maintain a modicum of the power they commanded during their last decade in control in Lansing.
After the speech, the GOP leaders said they were frustrated with the governor's refusal to specifically mention tax breaks for all seniors and her focus on what they deemed "divisive" issues, like gun safety laws and civil rights protections for the LGBTQ community.
"These are divisive policies. We want to start out working together, let's focus on things where there's agreement. There can be agreement on growing our economy, on bringing supply chains back from overseas, on increasing talent in our state, and on tackling workforce housing," said House Minority Leader Matt Hall, R-Richland Township.
"Let's focus there, and let's start moving in a direction together, rather than focusing on divisive policies that are going to divide the state."
House Speaker Joe Tate, D-Detroit, said he expects tax relief will garner bipartisan support. "I'm encouraged that Republicans have a similar plan that Democrats have in terms of tax relief."
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Tax relief for seniors and working families
In her speech, Whitmer reiterated her long-standing call to roll back the so-called retirement tax that ended exemptions for income from pensions and urge lawmakers to expand Michigan's state Earned Income Tax Credit, a tax benefit for low-income workers that is currently one of the least generous in the country.
Lawmakers from both parties have also put forward legislation to increase the state Earned Income Tax Credit from 6% to 20% of the federal credit as proposed in House bills and 30% in a Senate plan. Before the speech, Republican leaders noted some Democratic plans would phase in tax credits over a number of years, or not take effect immediately.
During the Gov. Rick Snyder administration, Republican lawmakers cut the EITC and eliminated tax exemptions for pension income, changes Whitmer has repeatedly pledged to reverse.
"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," she said, referring to Michigan's EITC. "It was wrong. Now, we can make it right."
Both Democratic and Republican bills introduced in the current session propose some form of tax relief for older Michiganders, with Democratic proposals focused primarily on tax exemptions for pensions and a GOP plan that would allow a broader set of seniors to deduct income from any source from their tax bill.
Changes to how retirees are taxed will save half a million households an average of $1,000 a year while expanding the state's EITC will provide on average at least $3,000 refunds to 700,000 families and impact nearly 1 million children, Whitmer said.
Senate Democrats tweaked their credit for working poor people so that it could retroactively apply to 2022 taxes, a move already proposed by Republicans. However, Senate Minority Leader Aric Nesbitt, R-Porter Township, warned that if tax credits are not broad enough and Michiganders do not see savings right away, the Senate GOP could prevent Democratic plans from taking effect immediately.
In the Senate, it takes a two-thirds vote for a law to get immediate effect. That means Democrats need Republican support to hit that mark; or conversely, the GOP can ensure bills do not go into effect until 90 days after the end of the legislative session.
"Why can't she say, 'every taxpayer in the state of Michigan is going to get tax relief,' instead of picking winners and losers," Nesbitt said after the speech.
"I think we need to provide all seniors relief, whether you're working or you're retired. I think it's very important that we stand up and support all working families and all seniors in Michigan."
Gun safety measures
Whitmer wants lawmakers to send gun safety measures her way such as laws that enact "extreme risk protection orders" to keep guns away from those deemed dangerous, she said.
She also wants to see tightened background checks on gun purchases and establishing storage requirements intended to keep guns out of the hands of children.
"The time for only thoughts and prayers is over," Whitmer said, prompting some of the loudest applause of the night from Democrats. "It's time for commonsense action to reduce gun violence in our communities."
Republicans blocked gun safety measures in the aftermath of the 2021 Oxford High School shooting. Last year, GOP lawmakers blocked a Democratic maneuver to force a vote on gun storage legislation. On gun-related bills, Democrats may have to go it alone. But Whitmer's other policy priorities appear poised to garner bipartisan support.
Michigan's economic future
Whitmer touted her administration's approach to economic development. With the support of lawmakers from both parties, she established a fund toward the end of her first term aimed at luring economic investments to Michigan by doling out taxpayer-funded incentives to companies that vow to create jobs. She highlighted the projects funded so far, prompting applause from Democratic and GOP state lawmakers alike.
Whitmer said she wants to see additional educational support for both Michigan's youngest residents and adults as a way to put future and current workers in the state on a path to good-paying jobs.
She laid out a plan to expand access to state-funded preschool to all 4-year-olds in Michigan by the time she leaves office.
Michigan's Great Start Readiness Program currently offers preschool for children at risk for low educational attainment to families that earn incomes up to 250% of the federal poverty level, almost $70,000 for a four-person household. Under Whitmer's plan, which would phase in over four years, families of all incomes would be eligible for the program and save an average of $10,000 a year for families, Whitmer said.
Whitmer also laid out a plan for one-on-one tutoring for students who have fallen behind during the COVID-19 pandemic, calling for investments in the "MI Kids Back on Track" program before spring break. She also called on lowering the eligibility age from 25 to 21 for the Michigan Reconnect program that seeks to increase the share of residents with postsecondary credentials by providing tuition-free skills training and degree programs.
In addition to education and training, Whitmer cast the fight for protecting civil rights such as those for LGBTQ residents in Michigan as intertwined with the state's economic success.
Such protections will help young people envision a future in Michigan, Whitmer has argued. Legislation from Democrats would build upon a Michigan Supreme Court ruling by explicitly banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
During her bid for reelection, Whitmer framed abortion in a similar vein, calling the choice of when to have a child the most important economic decision a woman makes in her lifetime. She called on lawmakers to repeal the state's 1931 abortion ban rendered unenforceable after Michigan voters adopted a constitutional amendment enshrining a right to abortion in the state constitution. Democratic lawmakers in both chambers of the state Legislature have introduced bills to do just that.
"Protecting these freedoms is the right thing to do and it's just good economics," she said. "States with extreme laws are losing talent and investment because you know what? Bigotry is bad for business." Some Republicans on the House floor joined Democrats who stood and cheered enthusiastically to Whitmer's line.
Clara Hendrickson fact-checks Michigan issues and politics as a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. Make a tax-deductible contribution to support her work at bit.ly/freepRFA. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 313-296-5743. Follow her on Twitter @clarajanehen.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Whitmer in State of the State calls for tax cuts, gun safety