Michigan Gov. Whitmer focuses on education in State of the State ahead of key term for Democrats

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LANSING, Mich. — Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer called for increased investments in education through initiatives such as free community college for all high school graduates and free preschool for 4-year-olds in a State of the State speech Wednesday night focused on cutting costs for residents.

The second-term Democratic governor’s speech preceded a legislative session that may require lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to work together for the first time since Democrats took full control of the state government last January. The state House will be tied 54-54 until at least April, when special elections for two open seats are set to be held.

Whitmer’s speech highlighted an investment of over a billion dollars to build or rehabilitate housing in the state, saying they planned to “build, baby, build.” She also called on lawmakers to pass a tax credit of up to $5,000 for caregiving expenses including counseling, transportation, and nursing or respite services.

“We will build a Michigan where if you get knocked down, you have the support you need to get back up. Lowering costs on the biggest items in your budget, improving education so your kids can thrive, ensuring you can ‘make it’ no matter who you are or what you’ve been through,” said Whitmer.

The governor also used the opportunity to highlight policies implemented by Democrats in 2023, their first year with full control of the agenda in over four decades. Democrats worked to repeal a union-restricting law known as “right-to-work,” overhaul gun laws in the state and further protect both LGBTQ+ and abortion rights.

Much of work highlighted in Whitmer’s speech aligned with the key issues that national Democrats are stressing ahead of the November election. Voter sentiment toward the party’s agenda in Michigan could prove vital for an upcoming presidential election that could hinge on the battleground state’s results.

“I cannot solve global inflation alone. No one person can — not even the President,” said Whitmer, who is the co-chair of President Joe Biden’s reelection campaign. The governor underscored Biden’s policies multiple times in her speech, saying they had driven a “manufacturing renaissance” in Michigan.

Republican leaders criticized Whitmer for what they said has been five years without substantive improvements in education, infrastructure or economic development in the state. Rep. Matt Hall, the House minority leader, described Whitmer’s agenda as “short–term ideas that are designed to generate a lot of press and attention toward perhaps national political ambitions.”

“What we saw in the speech tonight is really a long list of promises that only have short-term funding,” Senate Minority Leader Aric Nesbitt told reporters after the speech.

Hall and Nesbitt each pointed to a report released in December by a bipartisan commission focused on growing the state’s population that was formed last year by Whitmer. According to the report, Michigan ranks near the bottom of all states in population growth, median income and new housing.

Whitmer has focused on addressing these issues through economic development. On Wednesday, she proposed the implementation of a research and development tax credit and an innovation fund to invest in high-growth startups.

Many of the proposals, including the free community college plan and Whitmer’s call for free pre-K for 4-year olds by the end of the year, will require funding in the upcoming state budget.

It remains to be seen how soon, if at all, Whitmer’s initiatives will be brought before state lawmakers. Several key proposals that Whitmer called for last year, including paid family and medical leave, have yet to receive approval from lawmakers and remained absent from her speech Wednesday.

The state House is set to remain deadlocked until special elections in April, and questions linger over each party’s appetite for bipartisanship. While the 2024 legislative session began on Jan. 10, few votes have occurred so far.

Two Democratic representatives vacated their seats late last year after winning mayoral races, and special elections for the seats are slotted to take place on April 16. Democrats are expected to win both seats easily, which would allow them to push through their agenda beginning in late April.

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