Last Wednesday, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer endorsed a series of policy proposals in the first State of the State address of her second term. Underlying the speech, and many of the policy proposals, was a continued emphasis on bipartisanship — that is, on policy expected to receive support from members of both parties. Whitmer relied on bipartisanship during her first term, when Michigan’s state legislature was controlled by Republicans. In her first term, bipartisanship worked — it brought about many of the successes she mentioned in her speech while bolstering her reelection prospects; from those successes came the first Democratic trifecta since 1982 and a $9.2 billion budget surplus. But, with those in hand, Whitmer and Michigan Democrats must not waste these increasingly rare opportunities (the surplus and the majority) on moderate policies they think will draw in some bipartisan support.
Whitmer’s first set of policy proposals, as laid out in the State of the State, centered on supporting working Michiganders. It included two tax cuts, one for the working poor and one for seniors, and an endorsement of universal pre-kindergarten for 4 year olds.
Whitmer began the address with a swipe at the “retirement tax,” a 4.25% tax on retirement savings, including pensions, 401(k) plans and IRAs that she has been denouncing for 12 years. The governor’s office has estimated this tax cut will cost the state $350 million to $500 million and will save 700,000 seniors $1,000 a year. This tax cut, though, will only benefit seniors and those who have retirement savings.
In the past 40 years, traditional pension plans — in which employers save money for their employees’ retirement — have been largely replaced with 401(k) accounts, placing the onus of saving for retirement on individual workers. At the same time, the rate of retirement savings has stagnated for all but the older generations, leaving many younger generations underprepared for retirement. In other words, eliminating the retirement tax would squander some of the budget surplus on those fortunate enough to have retirement savings. Instead, funding could be put toward a safety net for seniors who lack adequate savings — something that would benefit younger generations struggling to prepare for retirement and seniors struggling to make ends meet.
Whitmer also endorsed expanding the Working Families Tax Credit, a state-level version of the federal Earned Income Tax Credit, which allows families with low incomes to receive a large tax refund. While Whitmer notes that increasing the WFTC would give “$3,000 to 730,000 working people” it is important to note that the majority of that — around $2,500 — comes from the federal government. In other words, Whitmer’s proposed policy would increase the WFTC from around $150 to $450 and give working families only a few extra hundred dollars a year.
Though giving hardworking families any extra assistance is a worthy cause, expanding only the WFTC excludes a significant portion of families experiencing poverty: those that do not have income. The unemployment rate is one of the strongest correlates with the poverty rate. Many people in poverty are not required to (and therefore do not) file taxes, because their income is too low. But the EITC only helps people who both have an income and file taxes. It is ironic that, when speaking on policy intended to help households in poverty, Whitmer decided to quote President Ronald Reagan, who referred to the EITC as “the best anti-poverty, the best pro-family, the best job creation measure.” It was Reagan and President Bill Clinton — whose campaign was quoted later in the speech — who dismantled cash welfare, adding in work requirements that virtually excluded those who could not find work from receiving aid.
Whitmer’s two main tax proposals target benefits at groups that independent voters might believe deserve them — the working poor and retirees. The proposals are moderate, and Whitmer first endorsed both of them years ago, when unified Democratic control of Michigan seemed impossible. That is no longer the case. Democrats have an opportunity to use their majority and the budget surplus to build a more inclusive social safety net and address social issues that may be less directly related to economics.
On the few social issues Whitmer did discuss, the Republican response was negative. When Whitmer endorsed state-subsidized universal pre-kindergarten for 4 year olds, she was met with strong applause from her Democratic colleagues and silence from Republicans. The same happened when she touched on repealing Michigan’s archaic 1931 abortion law (at 27:44) and expanding the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act (at 29:28) — even when framing the latter issue as a means to bolster job creation (“bigotry is bad for business”). These are the sort of issues Whitmer should be focusing on: more partisan policies that will only be addressed when Democrats hold power.
To make matters worse, the Republican response to the State of the State was quite negative, despite Whitmer avoiding overt partisanship. House Minority Leader Matt Hall, R-Richland Township, criticized the content of Whitmer’s speech, specifically the lack of attention paid to infrastructure: “She still has no real plan to fix the roads,” Hall said in a press release. Whitmer had an entire section of her speech dedicated to infrastructure, in which she noted the success her administration has had in repairing Michigan roads. Hall himself has already assembled a team “to evaluate Republican losses in November and get the caucus in a position to regain the majority.”
In making efforts to appeal to Republican priorities, Whitmer barely touched on key Democratic planks, including issues many young voters came out to vote for. The phrase “climate change” was uttered a total of one time, relegated to a single paragraph at the very end of her speech. Whitmer did not mention her intention to repeal Michigan’s Right-to-Work law, something she campaigned on and which has supposedly been a key priority for state Democrats in the decade since its passage. It wasn’t just Right-to-Work, she avoided workers’ rights issues entirely — even failing to mention the ongoing fight over whether Michigan’s minimum wage would increase from $10.10 to $13.03 (which will likely move to the Michigan Supreme Court). It was the Republican-led legislature that adopted a petition initiative to increase the minimum wage to $12 by 2022 and then amended it to push the wage to 2030.
In his response to the State of the State, Senate Minority Leader Aric Nesbitt focused on Whitmer’s apparent lack of bipartisanship in her first term. “Time and again, this governor has vetoed bipartisan proposals to provide real relief for those in need,” Nesbitt said. Despite Whitmer almost entirely avoiding controversial policies, Nesbitt portrayed Whitmer as a partisan and hoped that “the governor will realize that she was wrong and finally be a part of bipartisan efforts.”
State Republicans do not want to pass Whitmer’s proposals, as moderate as they may be. If Republicans wanted to expand the WFTC or eliminate the pension tax, they would have done it when they controlled the legislature. Today, with thin Democratic majorities, Republicans see an opportunity to stall legislation for two years. They see the same thing Republicans in the 117th U.S. Congress saw: the opportunity to prevent Democratic majorities from bringing about extensive, meaningful change.
Michigan Democrats have comparably slim majorities as national Democrats did in 2021. What they don’t have is a 60% threshold to end a filibuster; only a simple majority is required to end discussion on a particular law. With a bit of party unity, state Democrats can pass just about any piece of legislation they want, in spite of Republican obstinance. Democrats need to act early in the term, before the next election season, before contentious, polarizing national campaigns make their way to Michigan. They have the institutional power and money to legislate on issues voters waited in lines for — climate change, labor rights, abortion rights, gun safety and more — regardless of how partisan they may appear. All they need is the political will.
Quin Zapoli is the The Michigan Daily’s Editorial Page Editor, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.