Whitmer says roads, education in crisis; touts tuition-free plan

MICHIGAN GOV. GRETCHEN WHITMER delivers her first State of the State address to a joint session of the House and Senate on Tuesday at the state Capitol in Lansing. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)

LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Tuesday identified two major crises facing Michigan — aging infrastructure and a lagging education system — while promising to soon propose a “real solution” to fix the roads and touting a tuition-free plan that would help high school graduates attend college or get vocational training.

The Democrat, in her first State of the State address, said she did not run to “manage the decline of our state” but rather to ensure it “is one where our kids stay and families thrive.”

The roads, which were given a D- grade by the American Society of Civil Engineers, will only worsen “if we don’t act boldly and swiftly,” Whitmer said during a 55-minute speech to the Republican-led Legislature in which she largely urged bipartisan cooperation and criticized some past decisions that were made under a fully controlled GOP government.

She encouraged drivers and business owners to share on social media the effects of poor-quality roads. The #FTDR hashtag is short for her “fix the damn roads” message.

“We need to act now, before a catastrophe strikes or the situation becomes truly unrecoverable,” she said while warning of water infrastructure problems as well.

Whitmer, who is expected to unveil a multibillion-dollar road funding plan in her March budget presentation to lawmakers, also excoriated the state of schools. Third-graders rank in the bottom 10 in literacy, she said, while K-12 spending has seen the lowest growth of any state in the past 25 years.

“Our students are not broken. Our teachers are not broken. It’s our system that has been broken. While we can’t fix it overnight and greater investment alone won’t be enough, we are going to do it because 2 million kids in Michigan are counting on us,” said Whitmer, who is expected to call for a large K-12 funding boost in her budget.

Whitmer announced an “aggressive” goal of increasing the number of residents age 16 to 64 with a postsecondary credential — an industry certificate, associate degree or higher — to 60 percent by 2030, from 44 percent of the workforce as of 2016. The vast majority of jobs, she said, require some form of postsecondary education, whether it is a degree or a skills certification.

She proposed that the state provide graduating high school students two years of tuition at a community college — with no means testing — or a two-year $2,500 annual scholarship to those attending a four-year college or university. The latter would only qualify with a minimum 3.0 GPA and a household income under $80,000. Adults 25 and older also could receive financial support to “upskill” and land in-demand jobs.

“It will make Michigan the first Midwestern state to guarantee community college for all,” Whitmer said.

The cost of her proposals was not divulged, which is typical for State of the State addresses in which governors often stick to broader governing themes and goals. Costs will be outlined in her March 5 budget proposal, said budget director Chris Kolb.

“It sounds like a lot of priorities that are going to cost a lot of money,” said Republican Rep. James Lower of Cedar Lake. He agreed that road conditions are a problem but said legislators have been putting more money into construction for a number of years.

“There’s more work to do there, but just throwing more money into it right now — a lot of it would end up getting wasted because there isn’t the capacity and workforce for it,” he said.

Also Tuesday, Whitmer said Michigan should become the 17th state to adopt a hands-free law restricting the use of mobile devices while driving, except in 911 emergencies. Texting and driving is prohibited under current law. She said “you cannot navigate the road if you are looking at your phone” and introduced the family of Mitchel Kiefer, a Michigan State University freshman who was killed in 2016 by a distracted driver on Interstate 96.

Whitmer, a former legislator, said “there was nothing that amazed me more than parents that could channel the loss of their child into a crusade to protect other people’s kids.”

She highlighted her recent moves to reorganize and rename the state environmental department, ban state government and its contractors from discriminating against LGBT people, and join Michigan in the U.S. Climate Alliance — a coalition of governors seeking state-level action after President Donald Trump announced plans to withdraw from an international climate accord.

Whitmer also urged passage of legislation to add LGBT protections to the state civil rights law — which is unlikely to advance in the GOP-controlled Legislature — and bills to subject the governor’s office and lawmakers to public records requests.

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