Governor gives a glimpse into her priorities, but offers few details

Yesterday, Governor Gretchen Whitmer gave her first State of the State address as Michigan’s 49th chief executive. The speech highlighted many of her priorities in the areas of infrastructure, education, economic development, public health, and beyond; however, the speech was generally lacking in detail and specifics.

Gov. Whitmer’s focus seemed to be establishing a set of common goals before engaging in the hard work and legislative compromises necessary to settle on the common means needed to meet them. Fortunately, the Citizens Research Council stands as a resource that is armed with facts and analysis on nearly every priority established by Governor Whitmer in her speech.

On a day with heavy snow and  ice across most of the state, the speech began with a light joke: Whitmer applied her campaign catchphrase about the roads to the notion of fixing the damn weather. This set up discussion on the need for the state to prepare for extreme weather events and the wide-reaching impacts of climate change and its predominantly man-made contributing factors; the Citizens Research Council made a similar recommendation in a recent policy blog.

While the focus on climate drew mixed reactions, a later statement about fixing Michigan’s expensive auto insurance rates yielded a standing ovation. Our 2013 report proposed a number of options to address  the escalating medical costs tied to auto insurance rates. Just last week, I testified before the Michigan Senate Committee on Insurance and Banking to highlight our past research and urge action on this major cost for Michigan motorists.

A call to improve governmental transparency by making the office of the governor and the legislature subject to FOIA received a similarly warm reception. The Citizens Research Council welcomes transparency as an important component of good governance. Gov. Whitmer also issued an admonition to stop playing “shell games” with the state budget, echoing a long history of similar criticisms made by the Citizens Research Council regarding Michigan’s budgeting gimmicks.

At the core of her speech, Gov. Whitmer focused on what she called Michigan’s two major crises: infrastructure and education.

Gov. Whitmer characterized Michigan’s roads as the worst in the nation – a characterization substantiated by independent analysis. She stated that incremental fund shifts are insufficient to meet Michigan’s road funding needs—we agree—but offered no clue as to how to come up with the needed revenue. Additional road funding will have to come from three main sources: new taxes, diverting existing state revenues, and/or borrowing. We will soon release a report explaining the pros and cons of each approach, and highlighting the various policy options available to fix the damn roads.

Gov. Whitmer also characterized Michigan’s crumbling infrastructure as a threat to public health and safety. Again, we agree, as this assertion falls in line with our past research. In our 2018 report An Ounce of Prevention: What Public Health Means for Michigan, the Citizens Research Council highlighted the various impacts infrastructure can have on public health. We also highlighted numerous environmental health concerns—such as PFAS—that were echoed by the Governor in her speech.

As for education, the governor highlighted the fact that Michigan is trailing other states in literacy. Blaming declines in per-pupil funding, Gov. Whitmer highlighted this issue as a failure of leadership and a funding crisis. The Governor also used the opportunity to elevate teachers, suggesting that teachers have been under attack by reform policies. In a new report released this week on Michigan’s teacher pipeline, we found that the perception of punitive policies directed at teachers was one (among many) factor affecting teacher recruitment and retention in Michigan schools.

Gov. Whitmer tied this education crisis to an ongoing skills gap in Michigan’s labor force. She established a policy goal for 60 percent of the workforce to possess a post-secondary credential—university, community college, or skilled trade—by 2030. This would be an increase from the current proportion of 44 percent. To facilitate this increase, Gov. Whitmer unveiled plans for a “Michigan Opportunity Scholarship” for high school graduates to pursue community college or 2 years of university education (these plans would require legislative approval/appropriation). She also proposed “Michigan Reconnect” (modeled after a popular program called Tennessee Reconnect) to help adults complete associate’s degrees or certifications. These are ambitious programs that address a clear need in Michigan, yet how to pay for them amid ongoing budget constraints remains to be seen. We will release research on Michigan’s skills and talent gap in the future to inform further discussion.

Gov. Whitmer also turned her attention to an area that the Citizens Research Council has highlighted as a central concern for all Michigan residents: public health. Our report highlighted the many environmental health and drinking water concerns mentioned by the governor, but it also found a long history of underfunding public health in Michigan, organizational inefficiencies, inadequate focus on data collection, problems with rates of chronic and infectious diseases, and societal factors (like poverty, food, social support, and indeed transportation, education, and the environment) that determine our health. These issues were not mentioned beyond a directive that all state employees report threats to public health and safety (a clear response to history surrounding the water emergency in Flint), but it should be recognized that keeping people healthy and fully functional is fundamental to the priorities of facilitating student achievement and maintaining a thriving, productive workforce.

In discussing healthcare access, Whitmer highlighted concerns that newly designed work requirements for the state’s Medicaid program will lead to coverage losses, saying that the state must find ways to both promote work and preserve coverage. The Citizens Research Council cautioned against these work requirements more than a year ago. In another post from last June, we wrote: Medicaid is, at its core, a health program and policymakers would be wise to build on approaches that leverage Medicaid as a mechanism to reduce the health-related barriers to employment and productivity that (especially) poorer individuals face. If new efforts are needed to boost labor-force participation, there are strategies to do so without sacrificing the public’s health. A healthy population and a productive workforce are each important needs for society—they need not be mutually exclusive.”

One conspicuous omission from the Governor’s speech was another arena where Michigan lags the rest of the nation, an area of policy that factors into facilitating economic development, building infrastructure, addressing climate change, and improving public health: public transportation. Michigan needs integrated, multimodal transportation to meet the requirements of the 21st century economy and environment. We’ll issue a report soon and look forward to hearing more from the Governor on this important issue.

Perhaps Gov. Whitmer’s most pointed statement of the evening was when she admonished listeners that no one will invest in a state that doesn’t first invest in itself. The Citizens Research Council couldn’t agree more. From crumbling roads and bridges, to abysmally low literacy scores, to greater than average rates of disease and death, to environmental crises yielding bad press on a global scale, Michigan has an image problem when it comes to attracting new talent and business investment. More than simply an image problem, however, these factors together reduce the length and quality of life for every resident in our state.

We would have liked to have heard more substance and detail from this state of the state speech, but we are heartened that Gov. Whitmer appears to be heeding our research when it comes to highlighting the biggest problems facing Michigan. Improving infrastructure, education, the environment, and health are all “big ticket” items that portend greater public investment. Any public commitment to fund these priorities through taxes should be accompanied by assurances from our state leaders that public funds will be spent efficiently, as well as efforts to ensure we are getting maximum utility from each dollar already being spent.

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1 Comment

    • Thank you for all the great work you do!

      Chuck Fellows
      February 14, 2019, @ 5:03 pm Reply

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