Free preschool, community college headlines Whitmer’s State of the State address

Whitmer said expanding education access would be transformational for the state.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer delivers her State of the State address to a joint session of the House and Senate, Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2024, at the state Capitol in Lansing, Mich.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer delivers her State of the State address to a joint session of the House and Senate, Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2024, at the state Capitol in Lansing, Mich.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer put economic development, free community college and preschool for 4-year-olds, and some love for the Detroit Lions front and center as she delivered her sixth State of the State address Wednesday night at the state Capitol.

Whitmer — an avid sports fan — sported a Lion’s lapel pin, opening her speech with praise for the long downtrodden Detroit franchise heading to the NFC championship game this coming weekend.

“They are now a powerhouse that dominated by centering the grit that defines every Michigander,” she said. ” “On the way up, they turned naysayers and cynics into dreamers and, I don’t know if you know it, but our Wolverines are national champions.”

She then turned her attention to successes for Democrats as they ran the table last year in Lansing with newly minted House and Senate majorities. Repealing the state’s statutory abortion ban on the heels of a voter-approved reproductive rights amendment, repealing Michigan’s anti-union right-to-work law, and expanding the earned income tax credit for low-income households.

“Tonight, that’s what I’m going to focus on — how we keep lowering costs. How we improve education for our children in Michigan and compete with the world,” she said.

In the coming year, Whitmer said the state is desperate for affordable housing and she wants to spend more than a billion dollars on that. Additionally, Whitmer’s call for expanding free pre-kindergarten education and making two years of community college free to every high school graduate built upon policy ideas she had mentioned during last year’s speech, in which she called for pre-K for all by the end of 2026.

Whitmer said expanding education access would be transformational for the state, adding that the policy change would help boost Michigan’s sagging population numbers.

“We’re broadening our vision of education beyond K through 12,” she said. “Every single Michigander can count on a free public education from pre-K through community college. That’s the Michigan guarantee. Let’s get it done.”

She also called for incentives to encourage more business start-ups in Michigan and rebates adding up to $2,500 for people who purchase domestic union-made electric vehicles, among other new tax credits.

That includes a new caregiver tax credit the governor called on state lawmakers to pass, which Whitmer said could offer up to $5,000 in tax breaks to residents who are caring for an aging or sick family member.

“We can help more seniors age-in-place at home in dignity instead of a costlier long-term option,” she said. “We can support parents of children with long-term care needs.”

Other familiar topics mentioned in Whitmer’s speech included fixing roads and bridges and a research and development tax credit, which passed the state House with bipartisan support and is before the Michigan Senate.

Whitmer also referenced new recycling and electric vehicle battery projects the state recently won with the help of its business incentives programs.

“We’re showing the world that we make a lot more than just cars,” she said. “In the decades ahead, we will dominate the manufacturing of batteries, chips, and clean energy too.”

The cost of Whitmer’s proposals will come into focus at state budget meetings in the next few weeks, but Republican lawmakers are already questioning the governor’s ability to pay for her proposals.

“It’s unfortunate that Gov. Whitmer is maxing out the credit card,” said Senate Minority Leader Aric Nesbitt. “Her solution to transportation is to max out the credit card, hand the bill to the next governor and hand the bill to the next Legislature.”

Aside from making new proposals, the governor used her speech to highlight policy wins from the past year, including legislation to make it easier for the state to site renewable energy projects, and to codify the federal Affordable Care Act into state law.

Despite receiving several standing ovations from the Democratic side of the aisle throughout the speech, several Republicans appeared unimpressed.

“This was clearly the most partisan speech that Gov. Whitmer has given,” said House Minority Leader Matt Hall.

Hall said Whitmer should heed the advice from the Growing Michigan Together Council’s report on expanding the state’s population, calling it a “scathing indictment of her administration.”

“Our roads are among the worst in the country. Our young people are leaving the state, and our cities are not places people want to live,” he added. “So where’s the cohesive economic growth strategy?”

Nesbitt said the governor is more focused on positioning herself for higher office than addressing the state’s challenges.

“Republicans have a vision that puts your community, your school and your family first ahead of a bigger state government, special interests or ambitions for higher office,” he said.

Nesbitt said Republicans see some opportunity for bipartisan solutions to improve the state’s roads and schools. But he said the Democrats need to make a commitment to reach across the aisle, especially in the state House, which had a Democratic majority for much of last year, but is now evenly split.

“It’s 54 Republicans 54 Democrats, perfect time to work in a bipartisan way to move our state forward. And instead, the governor continues to double down on her partisan left wing progressive agenda,” he said.

The House is divided due to two Democratic lawmakers vacating their seats after winning mayoral races. Special elections have been scheduled in April to fill those seats, with a primary occurring later this month.All 110 state House seats are up for election this year and either party could take control.

WKAR’s politics and civics reporter Arjun Thakkar contributed to this report.

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