The upcoming State of the State address will be Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s first and largest opportunity to lay out the vision for her first year in office and set the tone for her first term. She may call for specific policy actions in the near-term, unveil ambitious goals for the next four years or, most likely, a bit of both. It’s an opportunity to both announce an agenda and frame the debate.
A bully pulpit or overtures for unity?
Although Whitmer, a Democrat, and Republican legislative leaders entered the year with strong statements about partnership and cooperation, a little more than a month into her term they’ve arrived at a stand-off.
A major executive reorganization, transforming the Department of Environmental Quality into the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, is threatened with rejection by Republicans legislators who hold a majority. They were incensed that business-friendly oversight panels, instituted just last year through legislation, have been removed by the order.
Rhetorical barbs have already been traded, perhaps indicating a break in that fledgling relationship, which could splinter if a middle ground can’t be reached. The House has already rejected the order, and with the rejection resting in a Senate committee, the Governor has been placed in an awkward position where the fate of her newly-formed department remains uncertain.
The reorganization serves as (at least superficial) proof of follow-through on her promises to ensure clean drinking water statewide and to tackle climate change, to which her statement on the reorganization alluded. Whether she chooses to cajole or call for compromise on the reorganization, though, could significantly set the tone of legislative relationships for the remainder of this session.
Infrastructure, but really roads, roads, roads
Michigan’s vehicle infrastructure is so degraded Whitmer rode into office with a slogan focused on fixing them. But any proposal with extra money to do so will begin in the legislature and will need Republican support to pass.
To follow through on such a central campaign promise, Whitmer will have a high-visibility opportunity to outline her proposal on Tuesday evening. She has said the first detailed road funding plan will come at the presentation of the executive budget recommendation in early March. This State of the State will allow Whitmer to lay the groundwork for that proposal.
Her predecessor, Rick Snyder, managed to negotiate tax-averse Republicans into supporting a 7.3-cent gas tax hike and a registration fee increase — the traditional means of road funding — in 2015. Whitmer is likely to seek out a different road funding mechanism. She campaigned on a plan to create a $2 billion state infrastructure bank. Where the money will come from is the pinch point, as the legislature will be loath to increase revenue through a tax increase. Taking on some debt via bonding is another option, but no more savory.
If the sticky subject of road founding is something the Governor would rather avoid, there is plenty else to discuss with the state’s infrastructure. With the recent cold snap fresh in the minds of Michiganders, Whitmer may call to shore up the state’s private utility infrastructure, to avoid another tenuous position with the state’s natural gas distribution. Or in a play to her political base, a call to replace lead service lines statewide could generate enthusiasm among environmental justice advocates.
Perhaps Snyder’s most visible bipartisan moment as governor was his embrace of Medicare’s expansion under the Affordable Care Act, which he did not only accept but later touted its success in covering uninsured Michiganders.
Health care was one of the midterm’s largest themes, and remains a prominent issue nationally among all voters, making Whitmer’s opportunity substantial. Though she campaigned on less ambitious proposals than her primary opponents’ audacious calls for a single-payer system, providing better access to rural residents could draw support from Republicans with more remote constituencies. Restoring Planned Parenthood funding, however, seems less viable given strong pro-life sentiments in the legislature.
A recent report from Michigan State University, which found Michigan was last in the nation in school funding growth from 1995 to 2015, will offer ammunition for Whitmer and those who place vital importance in growing the state’s investment in education.
Yet whether they can find common ground on a proposal Whitmer could lay out on reconfiguring Michigan’s school funding formula is still very much up in the air. Taxes on online sales and anticipated revenue from the legalization of marijuana will give the legislature some wiggle room with new revenue, which Whitmer may provide suggestions for in both her State of the State and future budget address.
Simon Schuster is a Masters of Public Policy student at Michigan State University and an IPPSR Graduate Policy Fellow.