The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, February 22, 2019

Whitmer puts people front and center in State of the State

By Marty Mulcahy, Editor

LANSING - Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's first State of the State address on Feb. 12 was - not surprisingly - short on details about her plans for the next four years in office.

After all, her authority is still checked by Republican majorities in the state House and Senate, and she cannot overturn all the damage that has been done to the state's working people over the past eight years. She cannot reinstate the state's prevailing wage law, nor can she overturn the state's right to work law. 

But for the parts of state government she does control - and they are considerable - she did set a tone of helpful outreach and inclusion for people in Michigan, in comments made in the state Capitol Building's House of Representatives chamber. Conversely, the Rick Snyder administration will be memorialized with lower tax rates and regulations for businesses - and forever saddled with responsibility for the Flint water crisis.

"Despite our challenges," Whitmer said at the outset of her speech, "Michigan’s greatest strength is — and always has been — our people. It’s no accident that Michiganders are a diverse, persevering, and innovative group. Just think about the people who built our state:

"Dutch immigrants who settled in West Michigan to work the land; Finns who came to mine in the U.P.; African Americans who came north for jobs in the auto industry; people from the Middle East who made Dearborn one of the country’s most vibrant, flourishing Arab-American communities.

"People from around the world came here for good-paying jobs, a high- quality education for their kids, and the right to live and worship freely. The diverse people who built our state saw Michigan not just as a potential home, but as a home for opportunity."

Whitmer winning the governor's office last November is the first opportunity for a champion of the state's working people to get a seat at the table in the past eight years. The Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council was the first group in organized labor to endorse her candidacy. Pledging to work with both Republicans and Democrats on "fixing the damn roads" was listed among her top two crises to overcome, ASAP. The state's ruling Republicans have been woefully unwilling and unable to come up with new road repair revenues.

"Last year," Whitmer said, "the American Society of Civil Engineers gave Michigan infrastructure an overall grade of D-plus. Our roads fared even worse—a D-minus—with just 18 percent of Michigan roads in 'good' condition. Another recent study found that Michigan has the worst roads in the country. The worst.

"Let’s be honest: we don’t need studies to tell us this. The evidence is impossible to ignore. Just a few weeks ago, I-75 was suddenly shut down in Oakland County because of dangerous potholes that flattened and destroyed tires sidelining dozens of cars. The potential consequences of course can be far more serious than a flat.

"Right now, we have crumbling bridges with hundreds of temporary supports holding them up. Buses of school kids and families travel over them—and under them. Chunks of concrete have slammed through windshields. By one estimate, the vehicle damage from our roads costs the average motorist $562 a year in repairs. We’re paying a road tax that doesn’t even fix the damn roads. That’s money that could go toward childcare, rent, college tuition, or retirement savings. 

"And while it’s hard to imagine things getting worse, that is precisely what will happen if we don’t act boldly and swiftly. Because over the next decade, the share of Michigan highways and trunk lines in poor condition will more than double—worsening the severity of the danger and costing drivers across our state even more."

Representatives from her office and state lawmakers are currently talking about ways to raise new money for road repair. But the roads aren't the state's only costly problem. 

"We also face serious problems with our water infrastructure," Whitmer said. "Last month, Flint’s water showed the lowest levels of lead and copper contamination since the start of the crisis four years ago. That’s good, but our work is not done.

"We are home to 21 percent of the world’s fresh water and yet too many families in Flint and across our state don’t have access to clean drinking water. Contamination from old pipes is not the only aspect we must address. Over the past year, toxic chemicals known as PFAS have been found in our lakes, our rivers, and our water systems in more than 70 communities spanning both of our peninsulas.

"This problem may not have commanded the same kind of national attention as the situation in Flint. But it is just as urgent. It is time to step up our efforts to protect the health and safety of all Michiganders. From our roads to our water, infrastructure is the crisis we see — we see it in on our commutes, in our communities, and in our homes."

The second crisis Whitmer pointed to "is harder to see, but we all know it exists: it’s the crisis in education and skills. And, like infrastructure, it impacts every one of us — our employers, our workers, and all of our children."

Whitmer said in the past 25 years, Michigan has seen the lowest growth in the K-12 education spending of any state in the nation. "During that time," she said, "our per-pupil funding revenue has actually fallen by 15 percent. And in the last decade, as our literacy crisis has grown, our predecessors have repeatedly raided K-12 education funding to fill gaps elsewhere in the state budget.

"Our educators deserve our support — not a funding crisis that undermines their work, weakens our schools and hurts our kids. We know that potential is universal, but right now opportunity is not. Our students are not broken. Our teachers are not broken. It’s our system that’s broken. We can’t fix it overnight. And greater investment alone won’t be enough. But we’re going to do it, because nearly two million kids are counting on us."

And speaking of the state's kids, Whitmer called for the creation of the Michigan Opportunity Scholarship, which would guarantee two years of debt-free community college for all graduating high school students who qualify. She talked about closing the skills gap: educating students in areas that will get them a job. She talked about her executive order prohibiting employers in state government from asking women applicants about their salary histories, because women still only make 78 cents for every dollar earned by men. She talked about expanded LGBT
protections. Whitmer talked about fixing state government, where she has found "departments that are understaffed, that lack diversity, and suffer from low morale."

Speaker of the House Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) said "I applaud the governor for keeping a consistent message that she had on the campaign trail, as far as building bridges and working across the aisle. But it is important to note that the campaign trail has ended and now it's time to govern. We heard a lot of neat ideas about things the governor believes should be provided to the citizens of the state. What we didn't hear about was how that revenue would be accumulated. I think it's important to note that the State of Michigan only has the money we take out of the pockets of the people that we serve."

Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber said of the State of the State: “Governor Whitmer has wasted no time addressing many of the issues facing the working people of this state after eight years of neglect in Lansing. Every worker deserves respect in the workplace and I appreciate her recognition that morale is low among state employees and applaud her efforts to meet with them to hear their concerns. Her dedication to addressing the gender wage gap and discrimination, and commitment for the need to expand apprenticeship programs, is a strong indication to every worker in this state that their concerns will be heard and that we have an administration in place that truly cares about working people in Michigan.”