Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer believes if the state is going to be successful in a global economy, its leaders need to connect with businesses on a more global scale.
That’s what took Whitmer, re-elected to her second term in November, to Oslo, Norway, and Davos, Switzerland last month. While overseas, she talked to officials from a variety of companies who already either have a presence in Michigan, want to grow their presence in Michigan, or want to establish a presence in Michigan.
In her fifth State of the State address in January, Whitmer pointed out that to succeed in a global economy, “you have to talk” to the global leaders.
“We’ve got to continue to cultivate the relationships and make sure they know when they invest in Michigan, we invest in them,” Whitmer told Corp! in a late-January interview. “It’s a two-way street. Their success is our success.
“We build relationships, it’s not just a one-off transaction,” she added. “This is about making sure they can grow and succeed and that means good jobs for Michiganders.”
She said being invited to speak in Davos about advanced manufacturing was a good thing for the state.
“I’m going to accept any opportunity to tell the story about what’s going on here and see if we can get more business into Michigan,” she said.
She gets to do that after handily dispatching Republican challenger Tudor Dixon in the November gubernatorial election, the first time two women have ever faced off for the state’s top job. That election was historic for another reason, after Democrats gained narrow majorities in both the state House and Senate. It’s the first time Democrats have controlled both branches in some 40 years.
That made it a pretty friendly environment for her State of the State address, the first in-person address at the Capitol since 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
She got lots of positive response — actually, some Republicans even stood and cheered for some of her proposals — and the Democrat-controlled Legislature delivered her first two victories the day after the speech, expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit and approving changes to the way retirement incomes are taxed.
Those were measures for which Whitmer had lobbied the lawmakers last year, with her calls falling on mostly deaf ears.
Not so now.
Lawmakers approved proposals that would provide some $1 billion in tax cuts. Senators voted 27-11 to expand the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit, which will save low-income workers about $442 million a year on their tax bills.
The Senate also voted (23-15) to change how the state taxes retirement income, bringing back an exemption for public pensions.
“I’m pleased the Legislature is moving so fast,” Whitmer said, throwing a shout-out to new Senate Majority Leader Winnie Brinks and Speaker of the House Joe Tate. “I’ve been focused on trying to get Michiganders some relief … and these two tax changes will put real money in people’s pockets.
“This is a tax credit that’s going to help a lot of people,” she added.
While the tax proposals drew some bipartisan support, not everyone was all that happy about them.
State Sen. Aric Nesbitt, a Republican from Porter Township, said Whitmer has repeatedly vetoed bipartisan proposals to provide “real relief” for those in need.
“It is good to see some Democrats joining Senate and House Republicans in the call for immediate relief now for all Michigan families and seniors,” Nesbitt said in delivering the Republican response to Whitmer’s address. “We hope the governor will realize that she was wrong and finally be a part of bipartisan efforts to deliver that relief. Immediate tax relief for all Michiganders must be a priority in 2023.”
Jeff Donofrio, president and CEO of Business Leaders for Michigan, said Whitmer “gave a strong speech.”
“We share her focus on building a brighter future by prioritizing our children, talent attraction and retention, economic development and business climate,” Donofrio said. “We look forward to working with the Governor and Democratic and Republican legislators on many of these important proposals.”
If anyone was wondering what a second term under Whitmer was going to look like — they shouldn’t have been; Whitmer was pretty clear during the campaign — they’re not wondering any longer. Whitmer laid out her priorities in a speech that lasted a little more than 45 minutes.
The speech was heavy on, among other things, tax relief, civil rights, education and public safety.
Whitmer said many of her proposals would coalesce when she presents her budget.
“My proposals tonight will tackle the challenges people are facing right now, make a real difference in their lives and make Michigan more competitive,” Whitmer said. “This is our future. But policies alone mean nothing — it’s about the people they impact.”
Whitmer said having taxpayers pay for preschool for all 4-year-olds would save families upward of $10,000 in the cost of private preschool tuition.
“It helps parents, especially moms, go back to work,” Whitmer said. “And it will launch hundreds more preschool classrooms across Michigan, supporting thousands of jobs.”
Whitmer also pushed for more protection for civil rights, including those for the LGBTQ community.
She tied such civil rights to the state’s economic success, saying a more inclusive Michigan would encourage young people to build their future here.
It was a theme continued from her reelection campaign — as the U.S. Supreme Court was overturning Roe v. Wade, Whitmer pushed for eliminating a nearly century-old law banning abortion — and included abortion in the civil rights discussion, calling the decision to have children “the most important economic
decision” a woman makes in her lifetime.
“Protecting these freedoms is the right thing to do and it’s just good economics,” she said. “States with extreme laws are losing talent and investment, because — you know what? Bigotry is bad for business.” The line drew rousing cheers from Democrats; even some Republicans joined in the applause.
Whitmer said she’s “been talking with a lot of our business leaders from small business to bigger companies in Michigan,” and they’re all looking for talent.
“What we hear from young people is a variety of things … number one: they want to know they can make a good living, get the good-paying job, have a high quality of life and an affordable cost of living,” Whitmer said. “Another is they care a great deal about individual rights, whether it’s LGBTQ protections or a woman’s ability to make her own decisions about her body or access to the ballot or climate change … these are important issues to young people and to the future of our economy.
“That’s why we need to make sure Michigan is the beacon that we have been in the past and that we are, in terms of being a place people look to as a great place to live and a great place to build a life. That’s why we have to have laws that protect all people.”
Among other priorities for her second term, Whitmer introduced:
• Make it in Michigan — A sustainable funding source for Michigan’s bipartisan economic development fund to invest more in bringing new jobs for Michiganders.
With this funding, Michigan can power economic development efforts year-round, move faster to compete for companies on the cutting-edge of manufacturing, and bring more supply chains home. Getting this done will create long-term economic opportunity in building cars, chips, and clean energy in our state and help ensure young people deciding where to start their lives choose Michigan.
With economists predicting a post-pandemic rebound for manufacturing, Whitmer likes the prospects such a rebound would bring to Michigan.
“There’s no state that does better when it comes to advanced manufacturing,” the governor said. “We’ve got the highest concentration of engineers, phenomenal universities and community colleges, trades and unions here who know how to work hard and build quality.
“I think advanced manufacturing is something we learned during the pandemic that we can’t afford to rely on other countries for,” she added. “Things like chips and batteries … we have to produce them here in the U.S. and Michigan is the place to do it.”
That’s why Whitmer has Michigan competing for a new Ford Motor Co. battery plant. The original chosen site was in Virginia, but Gov. Glenn Youngkin turned it down because of concerns Ford is working with China.
That’s OK with Whitmer.
“Ford is an iconic American company and proudly a Michigan company … A lot of states compete for opportunities like the one that has gotten some news coverage,” she said. “Virginia was competing, and then for some reason, toward the end, the governor made some comments that weren’t consistent with all the work that had gone into it. That’s fine. That means there’s more opportunity for others.
“We’re going to compete for every project, for every dollar, for every job and … we’re already making a mark internationally; people know Michigan is going to be the epicenter of batteries and electric vehicles and clean-energy jobs,” she added.
• Expanding education — Whitmer is also calling for continued funding to expand access to higher education and skills-training. She called for continued funding for the Michigan Achievement Scholarship, which has lowered the cost of college by thousands of dollars a year, and apprenticeships and programs that have put nearly 200,000 Michiganders on a path to tuition-free higher education and skills-training.
She also proposed lowering the age for Michigan Reconnect from 25 to 21, building on the more than 113,000 Michiganders who have been accepted into the program.
• MI Kids Back on Track — Whitmer is calling on leaders on both sides of the aisle to expand on the MI Kids Back on Track plan she introduced last year. The governor wants to make a record investment in tutoring by spring break, so Michigan can offer every child more 1-on-1 time with a caring, qualified educator and more time to master the skills they need to succeed. This will offer students the support they need and help Michigan families keep more of their hard-earned money. MI Kids Back on Track will help our state’s economy grow long-term.
• Public safety & gun violence prevention — Whitmer proposed an additional comprehensive investment in law enforcement, including better training, oversight and access to mental health resources to keep Michigan communities safe. To reduce gun violence, she is proposing commonsense reforms — universal background checks, safe storage laws and extreme risk protection orders — so we can make sure guns are kept out of the hands of those who might represent a danger to themselves or others and are stored safely at home. The governor is working to ensure Michiganders feel safe whether at home, work or school.
• Protecting fundamental freedoms — As a part of her Make It in Michigan plan, Whitmer is proposing legislative action that will attract new business and recruit and retain young talent. She proposed repealing Michigan’s 1931 abortion ban and other outdated laws restricting people’s ability to control their own bodies, shaming them for seeking reproductive health care and restricting who they can marry.
She is also calling for an expansion of the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to include legal protections for the LGBTQ+ community. With these proposals, Michigan can build on its reputation as a welcoming beacon of opportunity where anyone can succeed.
It’s a lot and Whitmer isn’t fooled into thinking it’s going to be easy to get it all done, just because the Democrats control both chambers in the state Legislature.
“They are moving fast already,” she said. “I want to give real kudos to (Brinks and Tate); they’re taking it seriously and their caucuses are doing a lot of work. I’m pleased about that.
“I’m also very cognizant of the fact we’ll have areas that take a little longer and people want more negotiation,” she added. “But I know our values are aligned and that we’re all motivated to … work for the people.
She got a little Republican love during her speech and she’s happy about that. She’s hopeful that the majority of her agenda contains things everyone should be able to get behind.
“I’m hopeful the majority of things that I laid out are things we can find common ground on, whether it’s educating our kids or giving people some tax relief, connecting our work force with opportunities that don’t break the bank,” Whitmer said. “This is really the meat-and-potatoes of what we need to do to ensure the health of our long-term economy in Michigan. When we do that, everyone benefits, so I’ll continue to try to find common ground with Republicans wherever I can.”
Despite her name coming up occasionally in national discussions, the only place Whitmer is interested in finding that common ground is in Lansing.
“I’m just starting my second and last four-year term as governor,” she said. “I’ve got a big agenda that I want to get accomplished, so 100% of my focus for the next four years is doing everything I can to get Michigan in a stronger place, so whomever succeeds me, I can hand it over with pride, knowing I did my very best to improve the quality of life and create opportunities.”
She was also adamant early on that she’s not a candidate for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated in 2024 with Sen. Debbie Stabenow’s decision not to seek re-election.
“She’s done a great job … Michigan has always had great representation in the U.S. Senate,” Whitmer said. “I’m confident there will be a lot of wonderful candidates running. I don’t know who it will be, but I know it won’t be me.”