The Gongwer Blog

Progressives Press Whitmer On Unmet Priorities

By Lily Guiney
Staff Writer
Posted: April 3, 2024 11:25 AM

Halfway through Governor Gretchen Whitmer's second term, some left-leaning advocacy groups are beginning to feel the sting of unmet policy goals and deference to business interests from the administration.

Hopes of seeing their priority initiatives included in Whitmer's budget recommendation or mentioned during the State of the State address dashed, groups like the Michigan Environmental Council, Detroit Action and Fund MI Future have begun pressing the administration for action from the outside.

Following the State of the State in January and the budget presentation in February, several left-leaning groups released statements critical of the lack of certain policies in those widely covered events.

Whitmer has acknowledged there is always more work to be done and negotiations to be had. Groups have also said the essential lack of a functional Legislature has made it difficult to get progressive priorities to the governor in 2024, because the House is tied at 54-54 and needs at least one Republican to pass anything.

Carlee Knott, a climate and energy policy coordinator for the MEC, said that it was disappointing to see no funding for climate-conscious housing programs in Whitmer's budget proposal, even if other priorities of the organization were present.

"We always end up wishing that there was more included, and we have our own priorities that we're always looking to include," Knott said.

Fund MI Future issued a statement after the budget presentation earlier this year, praising Whitmer's "winning strategy" of providing resources for schools, families and communities, but criticized tax "giveaways" to large corporations and the state's wealthiest families.

"We just have to go all in and stop pairing these improvements with tax giveaways that benefit wealthy corporations," the statement said. "Imagine how much farther we can go if we invest in our people and make sure the wealthy corporations and rich households pay what they owe in taxes."

Whitmer acknowledged that certain priorities, like a minimum wage increase or consideration of a graduated income tax, didn't make it into this year's budget proposal. She said that while she shares many of those goals that groups on the political left are fighting for, her top concern is getting her budget through the Legislature.

"I'm really proud of the budget that I put on the table," Whitmer said. "Obviously there's always more that we are going to want to work on. Getting this budget done is first and foremost on my list as I think about this this year that's going to be an important electoral year. People are going to want to get into their districts, but I want to get this budget done. And I think we've set the right tone, but there's always negotiation that's going to happen."

The budget proposal isn't the only thing breeding some frustration on the left, though. U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit) joined a coalition of environmental activists in a Thursday press conference calling for an overhaul of public input processes in the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy.

The congresswoman and activists said the process unfairly benefits corporations and robs residents of the ability to fully understand and comment on polluter projects in their areas.

Donele Wilkins, CEO of the Green Door Initiative, said Whitmer has the ability to make changes within the department to promote environmental justice and protect communities affected by pollution.

"The governor's opportunity is to utilize her administrative powers," Wilkins said. "At her level, she has the ability to look at some of the things that the agency is doing, and while some activities may require a legislative way of turning things around, she has the administrative strategies that help us get at what we need to be better informed, and to make some changes."

Whitmer has championed the right climate policies, the coalition said, but needs to make "clear directives" for enforcing them.

Knott said that Whitmer's administration, including department heads, has been supportive of many environmental policy changes that groups like the MEC have floated, but policies that benefit businesses often win out.

"Governor Whitmer is a very business friendly administrator," Knott said. "So, when they come out with things like the budget, or different issues that they're prioritizing, a lot of it is business. So, we just have to be there to remind them that there's other issues too."

Despite the roadblocks, liberal groups aren't jumping ship when it comes to supporting Whitmer anytime soon. Knott said she thinks last year's victories, because of the Democratic trifecta, have slowed down in 2024 due to the outstanding tie in the House. She said she's optimistic that things will start to pick up after special elections to fill the two empty seats in April.

"Progress has been slow so far, but we are kind of just working with the Legislature that we have, and we hope once we get those two seats filled that we'll be able to pass a lot of stuff forward (to Whitmer)," Knott said.

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