The Gongwer Blog

by Zachary Gorchow, Executive Editor and Publisher

9 Notable Passages In Whitmer's New Book

Posted: July 9, 2024 10:24 AM

Governor Gretchen Whitmer has described her book, "True Gretch," as a handbook, not a memoir, which seems an apt description.

It is not a grand autobiography on the scale of Bill Clinton's "My Life" or George W. Bush's "Decision Points." It's also clear it's not meant to be an authoritative reflection on her life and career to this point. Those hoping for Whitmer to take readers behind the curtain into any fierce internal debates within her administration about COVID shutdowns or how the ill-fated 45 cent per gallon fuel tax idea came to be will not find such insight.

At 158 pages and officially on sale today, the book is a quick read. As a handbook, Whitmer offers advice on how to endure through difficult times with chapters like, "Don't Let the Bullies Get You Down," "Learn to Listen," "Take Nothing Personally" and "You'll Never Regret Being Kind." In those chapters, Whitmer crisscrosses through her life, recalling successes (her first campaign for the state House), failures (a high school drinking incident) and how she deals with the occasionally ridiculous things people say to her (getting advice from a stranger on what brand of bra to wear).

There are funny moments. There's the story of how Whitmer and her sister, Liz, tease their brother Richard to this day about when their mother spanked him by the side of the road after he kept mouthing off in the car. Whitmer recounts her sometimes klutzy nature, her father nicknaming her "Gravity Gretchen" and includes a photo of her missing tooth from a bad fall she took as a child.

The book also has several poignant and painful moments. The governor goes further than she has in the past about how deeply the plot to kidnap her, put her on trial and execute her scarred her and her family. She writes about the moments leading up to her 2013 decision to speak on the Senate floor about when she was raped as a college student. She shares a story of how she and a friend reconciled after a difficult falling out.

Here are nine notable moments from the book.

1. 'THE WOMAN FROM MICHIGAN': Whitmer recounts the familiar story of what dramatically escalated her rise in national politics, when President Donald Trump, in the early days of COVID-19 – stung by Whitmer's criticism of his handling of the pandemic – said at a press conference he had told Vice President Mike Pence not to call "the woman from Michigan" in response to Whitmer's inquiries for federal help.

"I had been governor for only a little over a year and getting into a fight with the president wasn't something I was keen to do. I did it because I was scared. Michiganders were dying, and I had to do whatever it took to get the federal government's attention and help," she wrote.

Whitmer writes that the secret to "dealing with bullies: you take their weapon and make it your shield." She embraced "the woman from Michigan moniker."

2. 'A BIT OF A HELION': One of the stories emerging from the book is Whitmer revealing an embarrassing episode from while she was at Forest Hills Central High School in the 1980s. Whitmer has always described herself at this time of her life as less than studious. In the book, she recalls going to a football game on a Friday night as a sophomore and drinking so much alcohol with her friends that she passed out in the parking lot.

The principal found her laying on the ground between two parked cars.

"And while I'd like to say that I gathered myself enough to walk away with dignity, I actually threw up on him," Whitmer writes. "Sorry Mr. Bleke!"

The principal called Whitmer's mother, who picked her up and "was already raging when I crawled miserably into the car." Her parents grounded her for a month. Then on Monday, Whitmer was summoned to the principal's office from class, her classmates delivering an "Oooooooooh" knowing what she had done. She was suspended for three days.

Whitmer said she then "began trying to get my act together." A couple years later, Michigan State University accepted her, something the governor writes didn't seem possible a year earlier.

3. STORIES OF HER MOTHER: In 2000, Whitmer's mother, Sherry Whitmer, was diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme, a deadly brain tumor. The governor recalled climbing onto the hospital bed with her mother after the first surgery. The two hugged and cried. Whitmer called it the most "terrifying, heartbreaking, wrenching time" she could remember.

But Whitmer also remembered her mother, who had been an assistant attorney general, saying, "Well, Gretchen, at least I know you'll be the best senator there ever was," before pausing and adding, "Or, wait – you're running for the House."

"We both just cracked up," Whitmer writes. "It was insanely funny, and we ended up laughing so hard we could hardly breathe."

The governor writes that it's vital to find the light even in the darkest of times – even if the light is a "dumb, filthy or totally inappropriate joke."

4. THE SPEECH: In 2013, Whitmer delivered one of the most memorable speeches in the history of the Legislature when she revealed a man raped her while she was a freshman at Michigan State University.

Anti-abortion activists had circulated an initiative petition to prohibit health insurance coverage for abortions unless a woman purchased a separate rider. The Senate Republican majority, which had signaled it would wait on the measure until January, instead decided to move on it in December.

Whitmer, the Senate minority leader, decided to share her story, which she had revealed to only a handful of partners. Much of what happened that day is known: how Whitmer decided to reveal the assault in a speech and improvised her remarks. How her staff was stunned to learn what had happened to her. And how she initially felt terrible after her speech changed no votes but was heartened the next day at support that poured in from across the country (See Gongwer Michigan Report, December 13, 2013).

Whitmer sheds some new light on what happened behind the scenes the day of the speech. She recalled her longtime aide Nancy Bohnet warning her not to give the speech. "It won't change any votes, and you'll be making yourself vulnerable." She remembers her mouth going dry at the thought of giving the speech. She remembers walking away from the lectern on the Senate floor, "my heart pounding."

Ten years later, she writes of the satisfaction of signing the repeal of that law as governor in 2013.

"When I think back to how depressed I felt after failing to sway the vote in 2013, I remember what a wise therapist once told me. 'Everyone is a lump of clay,' she said. 'When a lump of clay is hallowed out, it becomes a cup, a vessel.' I love the idea that when something is taken from you, what's left behind has a purpose. For a long time, I wanted to ignore the terrible event that happened to me in college. But now I recognize that it also helped to make me who I am, a woman who's willing to fight and not be inclined to give up. I'll always be grateful that I could use that bad experience for good."

5. FACING THE DOUBLE STANDARD AS A WOMAN IN OFFICE: Whitmer shares some stories about what she has faced as a woman serving in elected office. She laments a ridiculous piece that ran on WJBK-TV, the Fox affiliate in Detroit, after her first State of the State speech in 2019 about social media reactions to the dress she wore. "A sartorial shitshow," the governor writes.

While knocking doors during a Senate campaign, a man answering the door in his bathrobe looked her up and down and said, "Huh, you look much bigger on television."

"It was clear he meant this as a compliment – that I was more to his liking in person – so I said, 'Thank you.' Which is really all you can say in these situations," the governor writes.

Whitmer writes that a woman recently told her she was so glad she was buying better bras and upon seeing Whitmer's confused face said she had told her four years ago she needed better bras. Whitmer writes she was still wearing the same brand of bras but said thank you anyway.

"No matter how many times it happens, I'm somehow always surprised at the things people are willing to say not only about me, but to me," she writes. "Some of them are meant as compliments (I think?), but my God, the way they come out."

6. COVID: Whitmer doesn't spend a ton of space on how she led the state's response to COVID, nor does she get into the details of how she came to the decision to shut down and limit a wide swath of activities for better than a year. What she describes is generally well known about working with Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, then the state's chief medical executive.

She does state, for the first time, some regret about the Detroit rally for Joe Biden's presidential campaign on the eve of the March 10, 2020, primary – also the eve of when the state would confirm its first COVID-19 cases.

"The good news was the rally was a huge success and motivated voters to turn out for Biden," she writes. "But looking back at photos of it now, I can only cringe. It looks like a superspreader event waiting to happen."

The governor does write at the ferocity of the Lansing April vehicle protest to her shutdown orders taking her aback. She was in her office in the Romney Building and a took a photo of a truck with a sign that said, "HalfWhit is the reason we need the 2nd amendment." She described stepping back from her office window after seeing the signs.

"I was trying to keep people from dying, and this was the response?" Whitmer writes. "Swastikas and hanging me in effigy? I understood that I was asking the people of Michigan to make sacrifices while we navigated this crisis. What I didn't understand, and still don't, is the reaction that because I was trying to save lives, people were threatening mine."

Then, Whitmer writes about the protest outside her home in Lansing on April 23, 2020, seeing some people bearing firearms and how that shook her, her husband and daughters.

"Seeing people with semiautomatic weapons standing just outside our home was chilling for all of us," she writes.

7. THE PLOT: Several men were convicted of conspiring to kidnap Whitmer following discussions of kidnapping and killing her. Whitmer shares some new details about the fear that gripped her family during this time.

It was the revelation that the men had discussed an attack on the family's summer home in Elk Rapids – which unlike the executive residence, lacks security – that caused the situation to become "really scary," the governor writes.

"If I happened to be there when armed people showed up wanting to kidnap or hurt me, I would be vulnerable," she writes.

Whitmer said she once had to call her husband, Marc Mallory, to urge him to leave the cottage upon police informing her the men were headed toward it.

"To this day, neither Sherry nor Sydney has gone back there, even though it was always one of our favorite places to go as a family," Whitmer writes of her daughters.

The governor said her husband closed his dental practice because of repeated threatening calls.

There was a time in Traverse City when the governor was with her daughter Sherry and an armed man near a store she was going to enter said, "There's that bitch." Her security detail, which heard the remark, hustled her and her daughter out the back door.

"When they told me why, I was crushed," Whitmer writes. "And angry."

The governor wrote she felt "gutted" when the jury hearing the case of the men charged in the plot to attack her acquitted two of the men and could not reach a verdict on two others, and the judge declared a mistrial. She wrote of "feeling depressed nearly to the brink of despair." The two men with the hung jury were convicted at retrial.

8. THAT FIRST CAMPAIGN IN 2000: Whitmer writes about how unhappy she was with her first job as an attorney for the Dickinson Wright firm, spending her days in a law library, writing briefs, interacting with almost no one.

"A politically connected friend" – Whitmer does not say who – told Whitmer her state representative (then-Rep. Laura Baird) couldn't run for reelection in 2000 because of term limits and encouraged her to think about running. Whitmer writes she never considered running for office. She had worked as an intern in the late House Speaker Curtis Hertel Sr.'s office. She ran the idea by her parents, and they both encouraged her to go for it.

Whitmer said her polling showed that a few weeks before the August primary, she was down about 20 percentage points to Mary Lindemann, who had been running hard. Lindemann had castigated Whitmer during the race, at one point referring to her as "the Whitmer daughter."

Whitmer recalled a campaign adviser urging her to go scorched earth on Lindemann. Her father warned she would pay a price for it as someone who would live in the community for a long time.

Instead, a plan was hatched to get Whitmer's mother's old boss, popular former Attorney General Frank Kelley, friend to both her parents, to cut a television ad endorsing her. Kelley was less than two years removed from a 37-year run as attorney general and probably the most popular politician in state history. He had put Jennifer Granholm over the top in the 1998 attorney general race with a commercial endorsing her as his successor.

"It would cost us three times as much to do this, and it still might not work," Whitmer recalled. "But Frank said yes, and we decided to do it."

9. A COUPLE OTHER LANSING NUGGETS: Whitmer writes of not having a great relationship with the Republican chair of a committee on which she was serving in the Senate.

"When she made the unusual move of instructing members to travel around the state for meetings, rather than holding them in Lansing, I was irritated," Whitmer wrote. "I had two small children, and now I'd have to make special arrangements for them so I could go on an unnecessary road show. When she didn't turn up for a scheduled stop in Grand Rapids, I was supremely annoyed."

Whitmer said she announced at the meeting, "It would have been nice if the chairwoman had made it."

But then she was informed the chair could not attend because her husband had been hospitalized.

"Oof. I felt like such a jerk," Whitmer writes. "I was ashamed of my behavior and apologized to her both publicly and privately."

Whitmer didn't name the senator, but it appears she was likely referring to the late Sen. Nancy Cassis, then the chair of the Finance Committee. That committee held several hearings across the state in early 2007 after then-Governor Jennifer Granholm proposed a 2 percent sales tax on services. It met in Grand Rapids on March 16, 2007.

She wrote of the two of them having a much more collegial tone after the senator accepted her apology.

Longtime Lansing observers will recall a minor flap prior to the start of Whitmer's second term in the House when then-Minority Leader Dianne Byrum announced in a news release she had chosen Whitmer to serve as minority vice chair of the Appropriations Committee. House Republicans went off, noting the speaker – not the minority leader – makes committee assignments.

"That's when I realized that, even though I hadn't done anything wrong, I was the one who could, and should, fix the problem," Whitmer writes.

She said she bought some goodies from a bakery and "a nice bottle of olive oil" and presented it to the Republican Appropriations chair (then-Rep. Marc Shulman) as an "olive branch" and apology of sorts.

"That was all it took – the Republicans stood down," Whitmer wrote. "I could have refused to apologize, because I hadn't done anything wrong. But I've learned over the years it's better to focus on being effective than on winning an argument."

Kennedy On Presidential Ballot As Natural Law Party Candidate

Posted: May 3, 2024 1:10 PM

One of the biggest potential wild cards in the 2024 presidential race, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., will be on the ballot in Michigan as the Natural Law Party's nominee.

The Natural Law Party announced Kennedy's nomination on Thursday. The party also nominated Nicole Shanahan for vice president.

"He's the most qualified candidate in the modern-day history of America," said Natural Law Party Chairman Doug Dern in a statement. "We welcome Mr. Kennedy and Ms. Shanahan to the party."

That is a huge help to Kennedy, who otherwise would have needed to gain ballot access as an independent candidate without party affiliation. That requires at least 15,000 valid signatures from registered voters with at least 100 such signatures from at least seven of the state's 13 U.S. House districts.

Kennedy's presence has alarmed Democrats, who are worried he could siphon away far-left voters from President Joe Biden,much in the same way that Jill Stein, the 2016 Green Party nominee, likely cost Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton the state and delivered Republican Donald Trump his 10,700-vote margin of victory.

Trump got about 47 percent of the vote in both 2016 and 2020. The main difference is the third-party vote plummeted in 2020, boosting Biden's percentage to more than 50 percent compared to the more than 46 percent Clinton received.

Kennedy is the son of former U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, who was assassinated during the 1968 presidential campaign. However, many of his family members have criticized him as a vaccine denier and conspiracy theorist. They have endorsed Biden.

Besides Michigan, Kennedy has secured ballot access in New Hampshire, North Carolina, Iowa, Nebraska, Utah, Idaho and Nevada and is working to get ballot access in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

School Groups Voicing Concerns On Whitmer MPSERS Proposal

Posted: February 16, 2024 1:18 PM

Governor Gretchen Whitmer's proposal to redirect $670 million in payments that had gone toward prefunding retiree health care for public school employees into the overall K-12 budget is starting to draw questions and opposition from groups representing traditional public school organizations.

Whitmer, when she initially announced the idea a week ago, explained that with the unfunded liability for retiree health care, also known as other post-employment benefits, set to be paid off this fiscal year, it no longer was required to continue putting the same amount of money into that component of the Michigan Public School Employees Retirement System. Instead, Whitmer saw an opportunity to redirect that money into a K-12 School Aid budget that has been well-funded in recent years but won't have those same excess revenues for the upcoming fiscal year.

Among the groups voicing support a week ago for the idea were the Michigan Education Association and the Michigan Alliance for Student Opportunity, an association of urban school districts.

Now the alliance has decided to oppose the proposal as more details became clear.

One of those elements that the Whitmer administration did not initially discuss is that it will take a statutory change.

That raises the specter of a statutory change not taking effect until March 2025, or halfway into the next fiscal year, because of Republican opposition. Unlike 2023, it is highly unlikely Democrats would try to adjourn the Legislature earlier than usual to speed up the effective date of bills without immediate effect because it would mean forfeiting any opportunity for a lame-duck session in a year that's already off to a slow start.

Further, there are concerns about the reaction of those public school employees who still have 3 percent of their pay deducted for retiree health care when they have to continue to pay but the state has cut way back.

Republicans have called for redirecting the payments on retiree health care into the pension portion of MPSERS whose unfunded liability continues to rise and now surpasses $35 billion. Despite that trend, it remains on schedule to be paid off by 2038. Transferring the retiree health care payments to pensions would speed up the elimination of that unfunded liability but the benefits of that move, as far as freeing up money for other uses in the budget, would still not be felt until the 2030s.

"As we look at the details, it feels like there are different ways we could be spending those dollars," said Peter Spadafore, executive director of the Michigan Alliance for Student Opportunity, saying his members would prefer to see proposals to add revenue to the system to fund the foundation allowance, special education, opportunity index and English language learners. "Our concerns really center in on making sure those dollars really are going to classroom spending, and we continue to see school aid dollars go out the door and fund community colleges and higher education. … Until we see new revenue sources, that trend is not likely to be reversed."

Jennifer Smith, director of government relations for the Michigan Association of School Boards, said her association has not taken a position on the proposal other than it wants a closer examination of it.

"There is some concern," she said. "We don't want to harm the system in the long run."

Lauren Leeds, spokesperson for the State Budget Office, said one of the key purposes of paying down debt is to free up resources for other priorities, and that's why Whitmer has made this proposal.

"Governor Whitmer knows that a good-quality education is the foundation every Michigander needs to build a successful and rewarding life," she said. "Directing this additional $670 million into classrooms will help ensure that every Michigan child is guaranteed the education they need to put them on the path to a bright future. The administration can direct these funds to our classroom while also ensuring that public school employees can retire knowing that the retirement benefits they've earned are protected for the long-term. The state of Michigan has been aggressively paying down unfunded liabilities in both the MPSERS and OPEB systems to ensure they remain solvent for current and future retirees – and we will continue to do so."

The state began a concerted effort to pay down the unfunded liability in the pension and retiree health care portions of MPSERS after Governor Rick Snyder took office in 2011. The unfunded liability in retiree health care at the time well exceeded $20 billion.

Craig Thiel of the Citizens Research Council of Michigan said a variety of factors resulted in driving down the retiree health care unfunded liability. Beginning prefunding of the liability shaved a huge portion of it. But then several laws led by then-Rep. Thomas Albert (R-Lowell) in the 2017-18 term also sped up the reductions.

The state could not reduce its payments from year to year regardless of the amount of unfunded liability was one change. Another was to require MPSERS to pay more into the system after a good year on the stock market.

But what especially accelerated the paydown in the last few years was the COVID-19 pandemic.

Further, Thiel said COVID led to far fewer people using the health care system than projected, shaving billions in unfunded liability.

Caleb Buhs, chief deputy director of the Department of Technology, Management and Budget, which oversees the Office of Retirement Services, said it was the combination of "claims experience," revenue from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the funding floor that caused the retiree health care unfunded liability to drop so quickly, unlike the pension system.

Republicans have called Whitmer's proposal a "raid" on teacher pensions. Thiel said he wouldn't use that word, noting the pension portion remains on schedule for payoff in 2038, but said there is a risk that if health care usage exceeded expectations or the stock market underperforms, the unfunded liability would reappear.

"Then the state will have to increase its contribution and find some portion of the money somewhere," he said.

The advantage to Whitmer is as governor she can keep spending on K-12 schools at a high level.

"Big picture, the state has been funneling, shoveling money into K-12 schools year because tax receipts have been very healthy," he said. "School districts kind of got used to healthy state aid payments coming through."

DHHS Budget: Boosts For Behavioral, Maternal Health; Medicaid Rebid

Posted: February 12, 2024 11:53 AM

Increases in spending for behavioral health clinics, maternal health, juvenile justice, cash assistance to the poor, a raise for non-direct care workers and a significant increase in Medicaid caseloads helped lift the Department of Health and Human Services budget by 5.5 percent under Governor Gretchen Whitmer's recommendation.

So significant were the increases Whitmer proposed for the 2024-25 fiscal year that the DHHS budget would still rise over the current year despite the removal of $347.4 million in one-time spending in the current year ($317.45 million General Fund). The current year budget was loaded with one-time projects.

By far the biggest increase in the governor's recommendation involves the anticipated number of people using Medicaid, both traditional Medicaid and the Healthy Michigan program. Whitmer's recommendation called for a $1.63 billion increase to accommodate caseload adjustment ($229.4 million General Fund).

Dominick Pallone, executive director of the Michigan Association of Health Plans, whose member insurers administer Medicaid and Healthy Michigan to more than 1 million residents, said he was looking forward to hearing more information about the reason for that large an increase.

"These are big numbers," he said. "The 1.6 (billion) isn't, in my opinion, abnormally large, but with all that's going on with Medicaid redetermination and the adjustments to caseload because of that and economic drivers in health care, such as personnel increases or pharmacy cost increases, we'll just work with the department and the Legislature to better understand it and make sure that that number is the right number."

The budget also includes several other changes to Medicaid. The $10 per month premium for all families with children under 19 in MIChild would be eliminated. A new program costing $30.5 million ($5.6 million General Fund) would be established to fund pre-release services to prisoners in their final 90 days of incarceration.

Part of the budget also involves the anticipated and already underway rebid of Medicaid and Healthy Michigan to the health plans that administer the coverage to more than 1 million. That process began in October.

The governor's DHHS budget recommendation describes the contract changes as budget neutral though they include some changes. The state will withhold 2 percent, up from 1 percent, of what it pays the plans. It uses those funds to reward those plans meeting outcomes the state seeks. There also will be a new requirement for all plans to reinvest 5 percent of their annual profits into partnerships with community organizations on efforts to address the social determinants of health.

Pallone said all of the new details were part of the bidding process and no surprise. He noted that the state's Medicaid contracts amount to 3 to 4 percent of its entire GDP.

"The writing's been on the wall for these things, and we look forward to them quite frankly," he said of the changes.

Beyond Medicaid, the biggest new spending item is the $193.3 million ($35.6 million General Fund) to expand the state's Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinics demonstration program. Some 75,000 residents now receive behavioral health assistance through these clinics. A briefing paper from the Whitmer administration said, however, clinics exist in just 21 of 83 counties.

The expansion could mean as many as 50,000 people can obtain services from the clinics. The state began the demonstration project in 2021.

The proposed expansion is the largest of $265 million ($70 million General Fund) to boost behavioral health programs. There also would be Medicaid reimbursement rate increases ($36.15 million all funds, $10.2 million General Fund) for services outside the prepaid inpatient health plan system, among other initiatives. A briefing paper said it would amount to a 33 percent increase to bring reimbursement in line with physical health reimbursements under Medicaid.

The governor proposed a wage increase for non-direct care nursing home staff of $0.85 per hour ($14 million, all General Fund). This is the raise direct care workers received in the current budget. No increase was proposed for direct care workers, who had hoped for a $1.50 increase in the current budget.

Another significant aspect of the governor's proposal was big increases in aid to the poor:

$108 million for summer Food Assistance for children, $120 per child, when they are not in school;

A $46 million increase for the Family Independence Program that the Whitmer administration called the most substantial changes to it since 1990 with a 35 percent increase in base monthly payments to families receiving cash assistance;

A $30 million increase for the State Emergency Relief program that provides emergency cash assistance for homeownership, utilities and home repairs to low-income households;

A 30 percent increase in the Michigan Energy Assistance Program that helps the poor with energy bills. The $15 million increase would be the first to the program since 2012; and

Ending birth expense recovery so the fathers of Medicaid-enrolled children born out of marriage no longer will have to make payments to the state ($13.7 million all funds, $4.8 million General Fund).

There are significant proposed increases for child welfare, such as $38 million to restructure rates on juvenile justice residential facilities to increase capacity.

There would be one-time spending of $35 million ($10 million General Fund) to implement the recommendations of the Racial Disparities Task Force.

And there would be a $26.6 million increase to continue expanding reproductive and maternal health programs ($23.7 million General Fund). Among the expansions are $14.2 million for statewide family planning services, $5 million for the Michigan Perinatal Quality Collaborative and $4.9 million for doula services.

Overall, the governor recommended $37.7 billion for DHHS ($6.71 billion General Fund, a 3.7 percent increase).

Rep. Christine Morse (D-Texas Township), chair of the House Appropriations Health and Human Services Subcommittee , said she was excited to see continued investments in areas like behavioral health, maternal health and child welfare.

She noted the increase in aid to the behavioral health clinics means a huge federal matching contribution.

"What we see is continued investment in what we started because what we started is still not enough," she said. "It's clear that 30 years of disinvestment in public health, specifically behavioral health resources, has left a big vacuum."

Morse overall was enthusiastic about the governor's proposal. Asked if she had any concerns, she said no.

"These are her ideas, and then we'll have our ideas, and the Senate will have their ideas," she said. "I'm just excited to get to work."

Rep. Phil Green (R-Watertown Township), the minority vice chair on the subcommittee, said he appreciated Whitmer's emphasis on the child welfare system and taking care of children.

Like most Republicans, Green said he had concerns with the budget's sustainability.

"Her focus on our residents has been refreshing and making sure that we are taking care of our pregnant moms and our unborn babies is of course something we can 100 percent agree on," he said. "The concerns are the age old question, 'how are we going to pay for this.' A lot of great things, it tickles a lot of people's ears: 'Hey, she's on our side.' But we have to make the dollars work."

Groups in the health care and human services worlds praised the governor's proposal.

Brian Peters, CEO of the Michigan Health & Hospital Association, said Whitmer's recommendation "checks the boxes hospitals and health systems need when it comes to crucial state funding." In a statement, he also praised the increases for maternal, infant and behavioral health. He lauded Whitmer as "a health care champion."

Monique Stanton, president and CEO of the Michigan League for Public Policy, called Whitmer's budget "people-centered" and especially praised the increases in financial assistance for the poor.

"Right now, Michigan has the 13th highest poverty rate in the nation, and our cash assistance program has been failing to meet the needs of the kids and families who rely on it. The governor's proposal to increase the payment amount for families will make the Family Independence Program more effective," Stanton said in a statement. "Bold action is needed now to support children, families and workers in our state, especially given that poverty is on the rise in more than half of Michigan's counties. The governor's budget provides a beacon of hope for Michiganders who are struggling, and we urge the Michigan Legislature to follow her lead."

Restrained Increases Seek To Keep New Programming In Place

Posted: February 12, 2024 11:52 AM

Governor Gretchen Whitmer's proposed 2024-25 fiscal year budget is designed to build on the new and expanded state-funded programming and services established during the pandemic-fueled revenue surge but with more modest increases.

Gone are most of the billions in one-time projects, known as enhancement grants by their supporters and pork by their opponents, that targeted funding to specific infrastructure or organizations at the whim of the Legislature. The billions in unrestricted federal aid the state received for relief during the COVID-19 pandemic are exhausted as is the $9 billion surplus in state revenues.

That meant the overall budget proposal for the 2024-25 fiscal year at $80.7 billion gross was a bit smaller than the $81.1 billion allocated so far for the 2023-24 fiscal year. General Fund spending would fall from $15.1 billion in the current year to $14.3 billion under the governor's budget.

"The initiatives in this budget proposal reflect my priorities – lowering costs, cutting red tape, reducing crime, powering economic development, ensuring every child has a high-quality education, and building a more fair, equitable Michigan," Whitmer said in her message. "This budget also marks a return to normal. Over the last few years, we harnessed the once-in-a-lifetime federal stimulus funds we received to make strategic investments that will yield long-term, tangible results and set us up well for the future."

Budget Director Jen Flood also called the budget a return to normal.

But the last fiscal year prior to the pandemic, the 2018-19 fiscal year, saw $58.9 billion in spending ($10.56 billion General Fund). Whitmer's budget, if adopted as is, would mean a 37 percent increase in gross spending (35 percent increase General Fund), or about 6 percent per year. Adjusting the General Fund for inflation since the end of the 2018-19 fiscal year would put it at $12.59 billion today.

Republicans slammed the governor for the lack of spending reductions.

The governor, speaking with reporters after her presentation to a joint meeting of the House Appropriations Committee and Senate Appropriations Committee , was asked whether she should have reduced spending further to move back to normal.

"Well, I think that every household knows that inflation has meant everything is more expensive, right? And that's what happens over time," she said. "We've been fortunate to be able to put Michigan's fiscal house in a much stronger position. Paying down liabilities, debt, whatever you want to call it, paying down $18 billion, that's a big deal. … Our credit ratings' been upgraded over the last few years. We are in a position where we've got historic highs in our state General Fund rainy day fund but also created a school rainy day fund and a billion dollars of tax cuts to Michigan residents, and I proposed a Michigan caregiver tax credit. I mean, there's a lot of ways that this budget really is focused on making investments that lower people's costs and so when we do that, and we do it right, every person in the state benefits."

Whitmer proposed modest increases in educational operations – 2.5 percent for K-12 schools' foundation allowance, community colleges as a whole and each of the state's 15 public universities.

Local governments saw a bit more in revenue sharing – a 5 percent increase in statutory revenue sharing plus some extra one-time funding for law enforcement and a little more for those that have expended all of their federal COVID aid.

Year to year comparisons between departments are difficult because so much one-time funding in the current year is budget is unavailable for the upcoming year. But in most cases, the governor sought to maintain or augment the new investments she has begun, especially in behavioral health, maternal health and drinking water.

The governor's proposal essentially expends everything available save for a few million. That raises the specter of a possible upending of the budget should the courts rule against the Whitmer administration and Attorney General Dana Nessel on the income tax rate. A 2015 law dropped the rate from 4.25 percent to 4.05 percent in 2023.

Nessel issued an opinion that the language of the statute meant the rate automatically returned to 4.25 percent for 2024, but Republicans howled in protest, and a lawsuit was filed challenging the Department of Treasury's decision to return the rate to 4.25 percent. The Court of Claims sided with the Whitmer administration, but the plaintiffs have appealed. Should the courts rule the rate belongs at 4.05 percent, that would pull about $650 million from the budget.

During her question-and-answer session with reporters, Whitmer was asked about that possibility.

"We've got a court ruling, and we are confident in the accuracy of that and so we built a budget around what our expectations are," she said. "I would also recognize that this budget actually is smaller than last year's budget. About half a billion dollars less in General Fund. We also have amassed record resources in our rainy day fund as well as an education fund and paid down billions in debt. So we're in a strong fiscal position. We built this budget, utilizing resources based on what we believe are sustainable, and I think that that's really why we've gotten in such a strong position able to make these long overdue investments."

Senate Minority Leader Aric Nesbitt (R-Porter Township) and Sen. Jon Bumstead (R-North Muskegon) said the governor's spending plan is irresponsible.

In a letter to the governor, Nesbitt and Bumstead warned her proposal would be out of balance without the increase to the income tax. They called for Whitmer to issue a revised executive budget recommendation "curbing spending rather than setting the state for further tax hikes" on residents and employers.

"A budget so close to a structural deficit would have been unfathomable just one year ago, when the state had a record $9 billion surplus," they said in the letter. "With cost pressures increasing annually and so little set aside after last year's spending spree, it seems like it's only a matter of time before spending officially outpaces revenues if we do not change course."

Rep. Sarah Lightner (R-Springport), the minority vice chair on the House Appropriations Committee , said in a statement the governor's budget demands more from taxpayers to "fuel a lavish spending spree," at odds with Whitmer's mantra about providing relief to families from increasing costs.

"Gov. Whitmer is prioritizing programs that offer wealthy people handouts when they buy a new car, taking on more debt to do more construction on state highways while local roads are ignored, and using money that should be spent on K-12 classrooms to fund free community college for all," she said. "Meanwhile, the people I talk to are tightening their belts. They're not out shopping for a new EV; they're focused on finding a reliable used car. They want state government to do the same – buckle down and focus on doing the basics well. If there's extra revenue, the governor shouldn't spend it on shiny new programs. She should return it to the people who earned it."

Whitmer, Touting Sweeping '23 Victories, Offers Tempered '24 Agenda

Posted: January 25, 2024 11:43 AM

Governor Gretchen Whitmer offered a limited new agenda for 2024 in her sixth State of the State speech Wednesday, devoting much of her address to hailing the wide-ranging policy achievements she and the first Democratic Legislature in 40 years achieved in 2023.

It was a far cry from the governor's 2023 speech, loaded with major new proposals or her first-of-a-kind mini-State of the State speech in August that set forth an ambitious legislative agenda for the fall. Whitmer focused her proposals for 2024 on a significant expansion of the state's incentive programs to attract economic development and substantial but undefined new spending to ramp up the state's preschool program and postsecondary tuition assistance efforts.

2024 politics were in the background. Whitmer twice referred to President Joe Biden, who is seeking a second term, by name, and her plea to viewers that no one person can solve global inflation alone appeared aimed at one of Biden's vulnerabilities headed into November. The governor, with her proposals for a smattering of targeted tax breaks on new vehicles and for persons providing caregiving to a family member as well as having the state pick up the cost of community college and preschool, also continued an emphasis on reducing costs for residents.

"Top of mind is costs. It's hard to buy a house, afford a car, or save for retirement while keeping up with bills. People put things off to make ends meet: replacing old tires, fixing busted gutters, buying your child a warmer coat. No matter who you are or where you come from, if you work hard, you should be able to provide for your family and have a fair shot at a better future," Whitmer said in a speech to a joint session of the Legislature. "Michiganders need more breathing room."

Whitmer, the state's first Generation X governor, imbued her address with 1980s music puns to the point where it almost felt like an episode of "Stranger Things" or "The Goldbergs." There were references to Guns N' Roses, The Police, Starship, Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, Tina Turner and more. The governor seemed to realize she had gone too far when her reference to Kate Bush's "Running Up That Hill" – she said "no one should be running up that bill to get better when they're sick" – elicited silence, a few groans and maybe one halting clap.

The governor, an avid sports fan, also leaned heavily into football as she has done in the past. She wore Detroit Lions colors and a Lion logo pin. She waved a Lions "GRIT" towel at one point. She looked a combination of saddened and annoyed that the Republicans, who sat in stony silence for the entire speech, wouldn't even stand to applaud when she praised the Lions for their success, moving within one win of their first Super Bowl appearance.

Perhaps appropriate given all the football references – Whitmer also shouted out the University of Michigan's football national championship – just as Whitmer was about to enter the House chamber news broke that Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh is leaving for the National Football League's Los Angeles Chargers, a story that will consume much of the speech's news cycle. It was the lead story on the state's major news websites Wednesday evening, pushing coverage of the speech well down computer screens.

Prior to the governor's remarks, the mood in the House chamber was upbeat.

As members of the Senate were being escorted into the chamber by an escort committee of House members, Rep. Mike Mueller (R-Linden) drew bipartisan cheers as he walked down the center aisle wearing a Detroit Lions jersey of former quarterback Eric Hipple.

Numerous members and attendees had donned Honolulu Blue in honor of the team as it awaits its NFC championship title game Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers. Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson was decked out in blue and could be seen wearing a Lions hat prior to the speech.

The mood for Democrats inside the House chamber during the speech was upbeat and changed to exuberant when the governor rattled off policy achievements of the past year under the Democratic trifecta.

At one point during the governor's listing off legislative accomplishments during 2023, a shout of "because Democrats deliver!" could be heard from a lone member or guest on the floor.

Cheers and ovations became more pronounced later when Whitmer discussed education policy and pronounced that "we support our teachers."

All the while, Republicans largely remained seated with few, if any, clapping during the vast majority of applause lines throughout the evening.

That somewhat changed when Whitmer, near the end of her speech, said the Lions were "once a punchline, now a powerhouse."

Whitmer, at the conclusion of her speech, said, "Go Lions!" while pulling out and waving a towel emblazoned with "Grit".

The governor recounted the many substantial laws she signed in 2023: on energy, abortion and LGBTQ protections; codifying the federal health care law into state law; having the state pick up the cost for breakfast and lunch for all public K-12 students not just the lower-income already covered under federal free-and-reduced lunch; rolling back the tax on retirement income; quintupling the Earned Income Tax Credit; and boosting the Budget Stabilization Fund.

Whitmer's limited policy proposals appeared a reflection of the reality facing Democrats this year with the House tied at 54-54 until April special elections can fill vacancies in two solidly Democratic districts. There may be just two months, at most, of session days from late April through late June, and the budget will consume most of the focus during that time.

Perhaps a tacit recognition that her best opportunity for significant wins will come in the budget was the two biggest policy proposals are budgetary asks, one speeding up the phase-in of state-funded preschool for all 4-year-olds, the other having the state pick up the cost of two years of community college tuition for all Michigan high school graduates.

The governor did not mention two significant items from her August "What's Next" speech that have yet to clear the Legislature: paid family leave and a prescription drug advisory board. Paid family leave has seen no legislative traction. The prescription drug board passed the Senate but has slowed in the House. Roads, the signature issue of the governor's 2018 campaign, got scant mention, with Whitmer referencing the Department of Transportation's already planned use of the remaining $700 million in bond money from the 2020 $3.5 billion bonding plan.

Whitmer also made just one reference to the Growing Michigan Together Council she appointed to develop ideas on how to grow the state's long-stagnant population. That reference involved infrastructure, where the council pointedly offered no proposal.

The governor's proposals for speeding up her state-funded preschool for all plan and state-funded community college for two years do evoke the council's call for an educational system that spans preschool through grade 14. But the governor did not call for the coordination the council recommended among the maze of educational institutions that cover those years.

The notable asks Whitmer had for the Legislature:

  • A new tax credit for persons providing care to a family member that could amount to as much as $5,000;
  • A new tax credit for new vehicle purchases with more generous credits for union-made vehicles;
  • A new research and development tax credit;
  • Reviving the Good Jobs for Michigan program that expired after 2019 and had allowed employers winning approval for participation to keep the income tax withholdings of their employees. Whitmer proposed calling it HIRE Michigan instead.

The governor faces a tricky path to get these proposals through the Legislature where Republicans appear to be digging in against anything resembling government intrusion into the marketplace and several Democrats are balking at what they consider corporate welfare.

Whitmer, however, has been resolute in favor of putting state resources behind efforts to attract businesses to the state and keep the ones already here.

"To keep winning, we must upgrade our economic development toolkit. We can and must outcompete our neighbors," she said.

Nick Smith contributed to this report.

What To Make Of Polls Showing Trump Leading Biden In Michigan

Posted: January 22, 2024 9:50 AM

The polling-media industrial complex is churning to life again in our state as the presidential election year begins, and a new chapter will soon be written in Michigan's turbulent history when it comes to polling elections.

Two of Michigan's pollsters, EPIC/MRA and Glengariff, are coming off a good 2022 when both found Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer running away with the governor's race, which Whitmer won by 10.5 percentage points. Other pollsters, like Mitchell Research & Communications and Trafalgar, had the race a statistical dead heat, which represented a polling error outside the margin of error.

The 2018 governor's race saw Mitchell and Glengariff close to Whitmer's 9.5 percentage point victory margin. EPIC/MRA and Target Insyght, however, missed a bit with final polls showing a five- and four-point spread, respectively. That's not an egregious polling error, however.

The 2016 and 2020 presidential cycles were what really upended Michigan's pollsters, which have struggled mightily to draw a polling sample that models the electorate in the Donald Trump era.

There was the infamous polling debacle in the Democratic presidential primary, where virtually every pollster, local and national, had Hillary Clinton with a yawning lead over Bernie Sanders. Mitchell had Clinton +37 and EPIC/MRA had Clinton +24. Sanders won by a little more than 1 percentage point.

For the general election, Mitchell had Clinton +5 on Trump, EPIC/MRA had Clinton +4. Trafalgar had Trump +2. Glengariff, which did its last poll in mid-October, had Clinton +14. Trump won by less than a percentage point.

The 2020 presidential primary saw some overestimation for now-President Joe Biden's victory margin over Sanders in the primary, which Biden won by 16.5 points. EPIC/MRA and Mitchell had Biden +21 and Target Insyght had Biden +41, a major polling error. Glengariff, however, had Biden +6, off by 10.

For the election between Trump and Biden, Mitchell, EPIC/MRA and Glengariff all had Biden +7. Several national polling outfits also had Biden with a clear lead. Trafalgar was at the other extreme with Trump +2. Biden ultimately won by 2 points.

There's a tendency among news organizations, though some are improving, to write about these polls uncritically and drop any of our usual skepticism. Except all these polls have a margin of error. Just because a firm polled a race at Smith 48, Jones 46 in September and then in October that firm polled again and got Smith 49, Jones 45 does not mean Smith's lead grew. It's all just statistical noise, but too often the framing in news stories seizes on these statistically insignificant changes.

Seldom do pollsters pay a price for major errors. Does anyone remember the poll another news organization trumpeted in 2018 showing a dead heat between now-Sen. Winnie Brinks and Chris Afendoulis (Brinks won by 16 points), Scott Dianda leading now-Sen. Ed McBroom by 6 points (McBroom won by 2) and the late Kelly Rossman-McKinney up by 9 points on Tom Barrett (Barrett won by 10)? I do, and I don't want to hear about how polls are a snapshot in time, though they are. These were just flat wrong.

Did anyone care besides me? Probably not.

That's my long lead-up to the latest round of polls on the anticipated Biden-Trump sequel.

In November, EPIC/MRA had Trump 46, Biden 41 in Michigan. New York Times/Siena College earlier in that month had Trump 48, Biden 43. About two weeks ago, Glengariff had Trump 47, Biden 39.

In 2020, the final margin was Biden 50.63 percent, Trump 47.85 percent.

The biggest takeaways I had from the recent Michigan surveys:

  • Trump's support remains unchanged. He's going to get his 47 to 48 percent of the vote. Lock it in. Remember, he also got 47.5 percent in 2016 when he beat Clinton. There's a ceiling though. He can't go much higher, if at all.
  • A sizeable chunk of Biden's Democratic base is casting about, unready to fully commit.
  • The small, but important, block of traditional Republican voters who abhor Trump and crossed over in 2020 to vote for Biden but came back to vote for Republicans like then-U.S. Senate candidate John James (in places like Rochester Hills and parts of suburban Kent County) are not ready to commit to Biden again. These voters can't stand Trump, but neither are they wild about Biden's policies.

There are a few analysts out there who think Biden has no shot, be it because of his age, his record, the inflation of the past several years, etc. But once both Biden and Trump have their party's nominations in the summer, voters will have to confront a Biden vs. Trump choice, something that while it seems inevitable now is not yet set in stone. Once that happens, I would expect Democrats to come home, and we'll be looking at a third straight very close race for president.

What Biden cannot afford is a bigger third party vote in 2024. In 2020, just 1.52 percent of the vote in Michigan went to third party candidates. In 2016, it was 5.23 percent. That was a huge difference in those two races.

I am once again screaming into the void for everyone to chill on polling. Take it for what it is and not treat it as unassailable.

The chances of that happening are about as good as the Pistons winning 10 games this year.


Here are some stories that stood out to me this week in state government and politics.

No one covers redistricting like Gongwer's Ben Solis. His granular coverage throughout the week really gives a sense of what the Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission is doing, and I am fairly certain Gongwer was the only news source analyzing what the potential changes would mean for incumbent lawmakers.

Did you know that just because a bill passes both houses of the Legislature in identical form that doesn't mean it goes to the governor's desk for signature? There were two such bills last year that passed both houses and were ordered enrolled but are now in purgatory. Gongwer's Elena Durnbaugh has the latest.

The Michigan Republican Party mess continues. Crain's Detroit Business reported on the party going into default on a $500,000 loan.

Hard feelings among the disbanded Racial Equity Workgroup created by the state's Opioids Task Force, which Governor Gretchen Whitmer created, Bridge Michigan reports. The workgroup was to advise the state on how to address opioid abuse among communities of color.

Will the independent review of the Judicial Tenure Commission's investigation of alleged judicial wrongdoing, a review launched given the disproportionate number of judges investigated who are Black, be fair? MLive looks into the inquiry ahead.

That's all for this week. Don't forget to listen to Episode 2 of the new Gongwer and WDET partnership on the "MichMash" podcast. And GO LIONS.

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