As a new era arrives in Michigan politics, the state stands at the forefront of many issues in the spotlight across the nation.
In some cases, Michigan is ahead of the curve, such as becoming the first Midwest state to legalize marijuana, but we will also witness the revisiting of many trending issues that were side-stepped or stomped by Republican lawmakers during the highly partisan lame duck legislative session in December.
In her inaugural speech at the state Capitol on Tuesday (above), Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer envisioned Michigan becoming a “blueprint” for other states in fixing aging infrastructure and breaking partisan gridlock in the Legislature.
The new governor will face a fresh round of debate over issues that deal with roads, education, workers’ pay, environmental protection and election reforms. These are key areas where Whitmer will butt heads often with the GOP-controlled Legislature. Her veto pen will serve as a potent weapon, but the governor hopes to persuade recalcitrant Republican lawmakers that proactive protections or progressive action is needed in a number of areas.
It will take lots of cash, cunning and convincing.
Due to term limits, Whitmer, the former Senate Minority Leader, will deal with about 30 new Republican faces in the state House and Senate plus new party leadership in both chambers.
Only the second Michigan Democratic governor in the past three decades, Whitmer continued her post-election conciliatory tone at her inauguration: “I will be a governor for everyone,” she said.
Governing Magazine (Governing.com) has produced a list of top issues facing the states in the new year and many of those matters loom large in Lansing.
- Marijuana — Dramatic legislative changes to the pro-marijuana Proposal 1 ballot initiative approved by voters in November were abandoned by the Republicans in lame duck. But implementation issues are sure to arise after the debut of legal recreational use of weed, and the widespread effort by many communities to ban pot shops may spark a fight in the Capitol.
- Medicaid — Republican Bill Schuette’s inclination to chop the Healthy Michigan expansion of Medicaid is no longer a threat after his loss in the governor’s race, but the GOP has successfully paved the way for work requirement imposed on recipients, starting 2020. Be assured that Whitmer will fight that plan.
Minimum Wage — While minimum wage increases went into effect in about half the states on New Year’s Day, Michigan lags behind other states and the inflation rate after a successful petition drive for a $12-an-hour minimum was gutted by the Legislature. While some states and cities are shooting for a gradual boost to $15, the increase in Michigan on Jan. 1 mandated a 20-cent increase to $9.45 – a boost of about $5 a week. The ballot proposal that was detoured by lawmakers would have incrementally raised the Michigan minimum to $12 over four years. The revamped version calls for a $12.05 hourly rate in 2030. The minimum wage is sure to remain a constant issue throughout Whitmer’s term in office.
- Paid Sick Leave — This issue is another example of the Legislature side-tracking a ballot proposal created by a successful petition campaign. Lawmakers revamped the initiative for earned, paid sick leave by exempting a majority of Michigan employers – those with less than 50 workers. This fight is not over.
- Environmental Regulations — The lame duck Republican Legislature loosened environmental protection rules in three ways: blocking regulations that are stricter than those of the federal government; eliminating development restrictions on thousands of small wetlands and riverfront properties; and making it easier for landfills to accept radioactive waste. Watch for Whitmer to aggressively revive debate over these issues, especially the changes that could make it harder to crack down on water pollution that contains toxic PFAS chemicals.
- Education Funding — While the 2017-18 Legislature in its final days passed a nearly unprecedented $1.3 billion supplemental spending bill loaded with pet projects proposed by legislators, the House and Senate also approved the transfer of between $141 million and $178 million away from K-12 school aid toward road repairs and environmental cleanups. In doing so, lawmakers hope for a $200 million boost in sales taxes generated from online sales. Regardless, Whitmer’s emphasis on greater K-12 spending during the gubernatorial campaign will reverberate repeatedly throughout 2019 in the Capitol.
- Roads — The $114 million extra for roads approved in lame duck continues the Legislature’s crumbs-for-potholes proposals that desperately seek to avoid new taxes or fees on motorists. Whitmer’s plan calls for $2 billion a year in new spending for overall infrastructure, which could unlock nearly another $1 billion in annual federal funding. If the Legislature won’t approve taxes or fees, the new governor is ready to push for a state bond proposal.
Governing.com highlighted Whitmer’s dilemma regarding roads:
“People sent a very clear message,” Gretchen Whitmer, Michigan’s new Democratic governor, said on Election Night. “They want us to fix the damn roads.”
Whitmer used the slightly salty slogan as a rallying cry during her campaign. She didn’t specify how Michigan would raise the roughly $2 billion needed in new state revenue. But any idea she eventually proposes would need to pass a Republican-led legislature to become law, and GOP lawmakers have been reluctant in recent years to raise taxes.
Still, Whitmer is one of several newly elected governors talking about the need to raise money for infrastructure improvements. That, combined with the fact that lawmakers are more likely to raise transportation-related taxes in non-election years, could make 2019 a big year for boosting state transportation budgets.