Lansing — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer called for immediate tax relief to help Michiganians cope with rising prices and “commonsense” action to combat gun violence on Wednesday night in a speech that laid out her policy vision for the first year of her second term.
Whitmer, a Democrat who was reelected in November, used her fifth State of the State address to detail a three-part plan to help residents deal with inflation, dubbed “Lowering MI Costs.” But she also pressed the House and Senate, which are now under Democratic control, to ensure “the world our kids inherit is not more violent than the one we inhabit now.”
“The time for only thoughts and prayers is over,” said Whitmer, referencing previous inaction by lawmakers to respond to mass shootings across the nation, including the 2021 killing of four students at Michigan’s Oxford High School.
The governor said policymakers should enact universal background check requirements for people who want to buy firearms, a safe storage standard for guns at home and “extreme risk” protection orders, also known as a red flag law, to allow guns to be taken away from people deemed a risk to themselves and others.
“And I want to be very clear — I’m not talking about law-abiding citizens,” Whitmer said. “Hunters and responsible gun owners from both sides of the aisle know that we need to get these commonsense gun safety proposals across the finish line.”
Paul Long, CEO of the Michigan Catholic Conference, praised the governor’s call for a law requiring firearms to remain locked in homes. He called it a “common sense gun control” policy.
“Too often we see on television or read online about children or other young adults who too easily accessed a gun that, in the end, regrettably took the life of another,” Long said in a statement. “The unnecessary killing of innocent persons by way of irresponsible gun ownership or ease-of-access must come to an end.”
Republicans criticized the speech for lacking specifics and said they were concerned the firearm-related proposals would conflict with constitutional protections for gun ownership.
“She talks about freedom and openness and yet she goes ahead and doesn’t trust free people,” said Senate Minority Leader Aric Nesbitt, a Republican from Porter Township.
“This is a presidential campaign announcement. That’s what that was,” Rep. Andrew Fink, R-Hillsdale, said of the speech.
The details of many Whitmer proposals advanced Wednesday will become clearer in a couple of weeks, when the governor will present her budget recommendation to the Legislature, said Senate Majority Leader Winnie Brinks, D-Grand Rapids.
“Tonight, we saw just a really positive message,” Brinks said. “This is a governor who understands the people of Michigan and will fight to do everything she can to help everyone.”
Richard Czuba, founder of the Lansing-based polling firm Glengariff Group, said he was struck by how centrist Whitmer’s speech was.
“She’s framing her agenda straight to independents,” Czuba said.
Whitmer’s inflation-focused financial proposal featured a proposed cut in taxes on retirement income, an expanded tax credit for low-wage workers and an effort to ensure all 4-year-olds can attend preschool for free.
“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.”
The governor has been working, since she was first elected in 2018, to expand early education opportunities in Michigan. By having taxpayers foot the bill for preschool for all 4-year-olds, Whitmer’s office said it 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.”
Republican State Board of Education member Tom McMillin, a former state lawmaker, attacked Whitmer’s proposal as government overreach.
“Not long ago, government-funded full-day kindergarten was their goal. Now, the Left, as the governor put it, wants government-run ‘child care’ for all kids,” McMillin said in a Wednesday statement. “They want to be the ones caring for all the kids. ‘Give us your kids’ is the Left’s continuous mantra. Tonight’s proposal is just another step in that direction.”
Addressing learning loss among students during the pandemic, Whitmer called on lawmakers to pass funding tutoring programs before they recess on March 23 for a two-week spring break. Details about Whitmer’s spending priorities will be laid out in the governor’s annual budget presentation to the Legislature on Feb. 8.
“In-class instruction alone is not enough — our children need more support to master the skills we know they need most,” Whitmer said.
Whitmer’s speech opened with a video that features audio clips of Lions coach Dan Campbell addressing his upstart football team, which went 9-8 this season and narrowly missed the playoffs. Sound bites of Campbell’s pep talks were juxtaposed with images of Michigan workers.
Whitmer’s address before the Legislature was the first time she got to detail her agenda with Democratic majorities in the state House and Senate. The last time a Democrat began a year in the governor’s office with control in both chambers of the Michigan Legislature was 40 years ago.
However, Democrats have touted the need to work across the aisle and their majorities are narrow: 20-18 in the Senate and 56-54 in the House.
The introductory video for Whitmer’s speech Wednesday ended with the text “We are one team. #MichiganGrit.”
In the coming year, the governor and lawmakers will have to decide how to respond to rising prices on groceries and other consumer goods while determining how to handle a $9 billion financial surplus amid forecasts that a mild recession is looming.
The governor has been championing two tax proposals: One would decrease taxes on retirement income by about $500 million a year, and another would boost a tax credit that benefits low-wage workers, saving them about an estimated $400 million a year.
Senate Democrats have begun advancing bills on both tax fronts. On Tuesday, a Senate committee approved the proposal to increase the Earned Income Tax Credit from 6% of the federal credit to 30%, helping an estimated 700,000 families.
On Wednesday, another Senate committee approved the retirement bill, which would undo tax changes that were put in place in 2011 by former Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican. The new legislation would bring back an exemption from the income tax for public pensions and would increase deductions for other forms of retirement income that were previously cut.
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Originally, the Democratic bill would have been phased in gradually over four years. But Sen. Kevin Hertel, D-St. Clair Shores, said he expected a revision would be coming to make the proposal take full effect this year.
“Ultimately, this bill keeps a promise to our seniors,” Hertel said Wednesday. “What you were told you would earn in retirement is what you will earn.”
Democrats will likely have to work with Republicans for the tax law changes to take effect this year because such timing would require two-thirds majority votes of support. GOP lawmakers, like Senate Minority Leader Nesbitt, have been calling for quick and broad tax relief.
“The way that the Democrats have phrased this as a retirement tax, I reject that, because it’s something where it’s picking winners and losers that get specific forms of income when they retire,” Nesbitt said.
More:Whitmer to call for plan to provide pre-K for all 4-year-olds in Michigan
Whitmer’s State of the State address Wednesday was her first given in front of lawmakers in person since 2020. The speech is historically delivered in the state House chambers in front of a joint session of the Legislature, but Whitmer took a two-year hiatus from that venue after the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020.
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