Just a few days after the Ford Motor Company announced Michigan’s latest round of pink slips, Granholm’s State of the State address last night showed an optimism that a cynical observer might think would take a few drinks to muster. Indeed, her unbridled enthusiasm for Michigan sunsets – closing her eyes and swaying as she described the joy of “gazing in an Adirondack chair on the porch with the sun on your face, smelling the white pine trees” – may have hit a sour note among the families more concerned with paying heating bills than taking a summer vacation. Granholm did present strong ideas on diversifying the state’s economy to providing health insurance to half of the state’s one million uninsured residents.
Many of her suggestions, however, were lost in a flurry of unrealistic, irrational promises to keep every single job in Michigan from leaving. In the Republicans’ rebuttal, we received the usual: Tax cuts will save the state. It was not merely disappointing, but gravely troubling, to see the state’s leaders focusing so much of their speaking time on dead-end public policy instead of an honest plan to address the challenges Michigan faces today.
In her once-in-a-year opportunity to define the state’s policy agenda, Granholm focused on bashing trade partners and other states. She received a standing ovation for trumpeting a single CEO who relocated his company from Mexico back to Michigan. To herald this isolated example of insourcing – against a nationwide flood of low-skill jobs out of the country – as an example of Michigan’s competitiveness in manufacturing was close to preposterous. Economic trends far beyond the governor’s control, however, dictate that low-skill, high-wage manufacturing jobs will migrate to low-wage states and countries. That Granholm pledged to keep existing manufacturing jobs in Michigan reeks of pandering: No matter how hard she tries, Granholm will not be able to reverse the trends of economic liberalization.
This criticism of Granholm, however, should not be interpreted as tacit support of the Republican alternative. Indeed, while Republicans were not gutsy enough to take on the forces of international economic integration, they did try to dupe Michigan’s voters with more of their overused and ineffective elixir: tax cuts. While tax cuts are politically popular, they aren’t miracle cures. Indeed, states with relatively high taxes, such as California, New York and Massachusetts, seem to bear little burden from higher taxes while maintaining robust economic growth.
To see Republicans squander their response to the governor on tax cuts, while the governor squandered her speech on defending manufacturing, bodes ill for the state. Obscured in Granholm’s address, and fully absent from the Republican’s response, was higher education. Despite reports that Granholm read Tom Friedman’s “The World is Flat,” it appears likely that she entirely missed the message. While Granholm promised that every Michigan family could send its children to college, she offered no way to fund such a plan. Indeed, the furthest she went was to support her plans for the Michigan Merit Award. While every student would surely welcome a $4,000 award after two years of higher education, such a sum will fall short of her promise to make higher education accessible to every student.
K-12 education received only a little more of the governor’s attention. Granholm outlined her reform to toughen high school graduation requirements, particularly in math and science. Both parties agree that the state’s current standards – just one semester of civics – are too lax, but reform could easily be lost in partisan debate.
In a rare show of bold leadership, Granholm enthusiastically endorsed the idea of raising the minimum wage. Stuck at $5.15 per hour for almost a decade, the minimum wage is far too low to support today’s costs of living. Yet raising the wage has been met with remarkable resistance from the state Legislature’s Republicans; while the Democratic caucus rose to its feet in support of the raise, hardly a finger twitched on the GOP side of the aisle. So, while Granholm’s suggestion that the Legislature act on the issue will likely fall on deaf ears, her endorsement will no doubt bolster an upcoming ballot initiative to do the exact same thing.
With after a year of record high fuel and natural gas prices, Granholm’s focus on alternative energies came as little surprise. With a fuel cell in hand, she proclaimed that fuel cells and other clean energy sources will soon be a part of residents’ everyday lives. A focus on developing alternative energies to make Michigan the “alternative energy epicenter of America” by funding research through the state’s new 21st Century Jobs fund and forming partnerships to increase demand for renewable energy sources across the state is a start to reducing the growing economic and environmental costs of fossil fuel dependence. But to focus only on supply – neglecting the state’s failure to reduce fuel demand by expanding public transportation, for example – can only provide a partial solution to the long-term problem of rising energy consumption.
Granholm clearly articulated a progressive plan for stem cell research that may one day alleviate the pain of those battling debilitating illnesses. Michigan’s current restrictions on stem-cell research are among the most prohibitive in the entire nation, and Granholm called for the state to remove these barriers. Speaking directly to the Legislature, she demanded the passage of a proposed bill that aims to repeal Michigan’s stifling stem-cell legislation.
Granholm was determined – and nearly hostile – in her tone with lawmakers for chunks of her speech that seemed simply reworked from last year. Several of Granholm’s proposals in her 2005 State of the State met with little success in a Republican-controlled legislators receptive to little other than tax cuts. Repeating her plan to rework the Michigan Merit Scholarship, which has received little attention in the Legislature since last year, she told the state’s citizens, “you should ask this Legislature: ‘Why are you waiting?'” She practically threatened the Legislature with the petition drive to put a minimum wage increase on the November ballot.
The cool response these ideas met with once again on the right side of the aisle, though, was telling. Republican legislators sat silently through many a Democratic ovation for Granholm’s ideas. Though it may be difficult to fathom why anyone would want to lead this state as its economy withers away, 2006 is an election year. To boost their party’s chances this fall, the Legislature’s Republican leadership will hardly be content to give Granholm anything resembling a victory on the agenda she outlined last night – or in last year’s State of the State, for that matter.