Gov. Gretchen Whitmer delivered the annual State of the State address Wednesday night, pledging to fight COVID-19, grow Michigan’s economy and return students and educators to in-person instruction this year. Speaking via livestream from her office in Lansing, Whitmer urged the state legislature to support her proposals for pandemic safety measures, increased school funding and clean water programs.
Whitmer announced that Michigan stands in sixth and seventh place in the nation for vaccinations and COVID-19 tests, respectively, with over 800,000 vaccines and 9.6 million COVID tests administered. She said Michigan hopes to vaccinate 70% of the population aged 16 and over as soon as possible, with a goal of administering 50,000 vaccines per day.
“In the coming months, the vaccine will be available to the general population. When very little seems in our individual control, the act of getting a vaccine is,” Whitmer said. “The good news is that we know how to fight this virus. The coming months will determine the strength of our economic recovery. Let’s end this pandemic.”
Whitmer called on the legislature to extend unemployment benefits from 20 to 26 weeks to support small businesses as a part of the Michigan COVID Recovery Plan announced last week.
“This would bring Michigan in line with 40 other states and provide hard-hit Michigan workers with the financial security and peace of mind they deserve,” Whitmer said. “The plan gives crucial support for small business(es) and resources to help them thrive long after the pandemic is over.”
Whitmer said she plans for all schools to offer in-person learning by March 1. She also announced a grant program called “My Classroom Heroes,” which aims to provide $500 in hazard pay checks to all teachers and $250 to support staff by Feb. 25.
“We’ve set a goal for all schools to offer an in-person learning opportunity by March 1st,” Whitmer said. “We’ve seen by following the safety protocols, this can be done successfully.”
Whitmer asked the state legislature to make the $2 per hour pay raise offered to direct care workers working in long-term care facilities permanent. She also said Futures for Frontliners, a program launched in September 2020 that provides tuition-free post-secondary education for frontline workers during the pandemic, has accepted more than 82,000 frontline workers into the program.
“Frontline workers, health care workers, grocery stores employees, child care workers, janitors and everyone who stepped up to protect us, they are heroes,” Whitmer said. “They stayed at work so the rest of us could stay home and they earned our full support.”
Rep. Yousef Rabhi, D–Ann Arbor, told The Daily while he supports Whitmer’s focus on vaccine distribution and mask safety, she should have addressed environmental issues in her speech.
“We are in the midst of a pandemic, but we’re also in the midst of a global climate crisis,” Rabhi said. “That’s something that we need to keep our eyes focused on, even in the worst of times, from a public health perspective, because we are on the precipice of a further global calamity that will impact all of us.”
Republican legislative priorities
Before Whitmer’s State of the State address, Republicans and Democrats in the state legislature released their 2021 legislative priorities, both promising to control the COVID-19 pandemic and bring relief to businesses and families impacted by the economic fallout.
According to the Healthier Michigan list, a core aspect of the Republican legislative priorities, Republicans will prioritize protecting the state against COVID-19, harnessing and attracting workforce talent to Michigan and ensuring confidence in elections during 2021. In the 2020 general election, many Michigan Republicans worked to overturn election results undemocratically.
While unveiling the Healthier Michigan list during an online event Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R–Clarklake, said the Republican caucus is committed to building a healthier economy, education system and community in Michigan.
“The Senate Republicans believe every Michigander deserves the opportunity to live and prosper in a safe, healthy community,” Shirkey said. “Senate Republicans are committed to building on opportunities to give Michigan families and communities greater peace of mind about the future.”
In Tuesday’s press release, Shirkey criticized Whitmer’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and said House and Senate Republicans will safely reopen businesses and provide economic relief to Michigan residents.
“Over the past several months, our citizens have endured confusing and oppressive orders from the governor,” Shirkey said. “The result is a failed vaccination plan for Michigan; closure policies that jeopardize the lives and livelihoods of hardworking families; and students that are at risk of falling behind. It’s unacceptable. The Senate Republicans are committed to doing better and prioritizing the health of our families and communities, our economy and our future.”
On Wednesday, Senate Republicans blocked 13 of Whitmer’s appointments to state boards and commissions in retaliation against her vetoes of COVID-19 relief bills and epidemic orders. House Republicans said they would withhold billions of dollars in federal funding for education in Michigan unless Whitmer agreed to a law that would strip her of health-related emergency powers.
Sen. Ken Horn, R–Frankenmuth told the Detroit Free Press these actions were taken because Whitmer was not receptive to their concerns about COVID-19 relief and closing nonessential businesses.
“We’ve been patient with the governor, we’ve sent her a great (many) issues that she could support as well,” Horn said. “And without explanation, we saw vetoes. We saw this government shut down.”
While the government never underwent a shutdown during the pandemic, Whitmer and Michigan Republicans frequently sparred over the length and strength of shutdown orders meant to curb the spread of COVID-19.
In October, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled that Whitmer did not have the authority to extend executive orders related to COVID-19 precautions past April 30, nullifying her extensions of the state of emergency. Whitmer criticized this ruling, saying it made Michigan an “outlier” as virus cases continued to rise throughout the fall.
Democratic legislative priorities
In September, House Democrats announced their Michigan Strong plan, a legislative agenda to help families recover from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. The “Michigan Strong” plan outlines methods to provide free COVID-19 testing, treatment and vaccinations across the state. It also aims to halt foreclosures and student loan payments during future COVID-19 waves and secure funding for personal protective equipment for frontline workers.
In a statement, House Democratic Leader Christine Greig, D–Farmington Hills, said Democrats will commit to strengthening and investing in health care, education, business and democracy.
“Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, House Democrats have been focused on providing the support and resources that all Michiganders need,” Greig said. “And if we’ve learned anything from this crisis, it is that we have much more work to do to ensure that our families, students, small businesses and every member of our critical workforce receives the support they need when they need it most.”
Daily Staff Reporter Julia Rubin can be reached at email@example.com.
The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown challenges at all of us — including The Michigan Daily — but that hasn’t stopped our staff. We’re committed to reporting on the issues that matter most to the community where we live, learn and work. Your donations keep our journalism free and independent. You can support our work here.
For a weekly roundup of the best stories from The Michigan Daily, sign up for our newsletter here.