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Business Press interview with Whitmer/Gilchrist reads like Business as usual when it comes to politics in Michigan

January 3, 2023

Just before the holiday break, MiBiz did an interview with Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer and Lt. Governor Garlin Gilchrist about their party’s plans in the New Year, no that the democrats control the Governor’s office and the State Legislature. This Democratic control of Michigan politics is the first time that the Democrats have had this kind of control in 40 years, yet the headline read, ‘WE’RE PRAGMATISTS’: Whitmer, Gilchrist outline 2023 policy goals.

We thought this would be a good opportunity to dissect the policy agenda of the Democrats for at least the next two years, while they have control of the State. We are going to go through this interview, question by question, to critique the policy vision, along with the language and framing used by both Whitmer and Gilchrist.

MIBiz – What are your top policy priorities heading into 2023?

Whitmer: We’re really excited about the opportunity to continue the work that we got started in the first term. We are working very closely with Speaker-elect Joe Tate and Senate Majority Leader-elect Winnie Brinks. I think some of the first things we want to accomplish is help people keep more money in their pockets. Whether it’s a working family tax credit or repealing the retirement pension tax, these are ways we could help people who are struggling right now with the high cost of everything. 

GRIID – In response to the question about top policy priorities, Whitmer only lists two specific policies, the family tax credit or repealing the retirement pension tax. Both of these would certainly be a good start to keeping money money into the pockets of working class people/families, but it doesn’t address the massive wealth gap that exists in Michigan. There is no discussion about raising the minimum wage to a level that would allow people to afford the basic necessities, such as housing, health care, transportation, groceries, etc. On January 1st, 2023, Michigan’s minimum wage went from $9.87 to $10.10, which is only a 23 cent increase. $10.10 an hour is a poverty wage and is unacceptable for individuals and those raising a family.

MiBiz – As Democrats secured a trifecta in state government, some have suggested that the party should avoid veering too far left on policies to retain its majorities. What’s your view on that analysis?

Whitmer: We’re pragmatists. We’re Michiganders through and through, we just want to get things done that are going to make a difference in people’s lives right now. We’ve got a slim, two-seat majority in the House and Senate. We will continue to make a seat at the table for the minority leaders because we share constituencies and the people of Michigan deserve a governor and a lieutenant governor who stay focused on solving problems. We are here to serve and to govern for all people of Michigan.

Gilchrist: I think the results of this election are reflective of the support for the approaches we have taken. The governor and I have always put solutions ahead of everything because we know that’s what the people of Michigan need to have an improved quality of life. So this is certainly the way we’re going to continue to approach this. And I think the legislators will have that same posture.

GRIID – With this second question, the MiBiz reporter is setting up both Whitmer and Gilchrist, even baiting them to see if they will veer going “too far left.” Whitmer’s response is instructive. First, she says, “We’re pragmatists.” This statement speaks volumes and is followed up by not speaking to what kind of policies they will push for, but that they want to work with the GOP and solve problems. It’s a tepid response that doesn’t suggest that people who are being exploited, those experiencing structural racism, those demanding right and those wanting to live in a world that run by money and power should not hope that much will change with the Democratic majority. The response from Gilchrist isn’t much better, where he uses vague language and completely avoids concrete policy proposals. 

MiBiz – Do you support repealing Michigan’s right to work law? And what’s your response to business advocates who say doing so would send a bad message to companies considering investing here?

Whitmer: I can tell you this: I was in the Legislature when the Republicans changed the law. No one’s going to be surprised to know what my position is on this issue. I can also tell you this: We have seen tough times here in Michigan and right now one of the greatest strengths we have is our mobility sector. It’s growing. We’ve added jobs and it’s because of a great partnership with the U.A.W. and General Motors, Ford and Stellantis. I think there were a lot of promises made 10 years ago when the law changed, a lot of threats were made. Very little of it came to fruition. We’re going to stay focused on building a future economy where all people can have a say in the terms of their employment and all businesses can thrive. It’s not one or the other, it’s got to be both.

GRIID – Again, Whitmer doesn’t really answer the question with an emphatic, “yes, we will repeal the Right to Work law.” Instead, Whitmer talks about partner ships with the auto industry and the UAW, but then ends her comments by saying she wants all businesses to thrive. Repealing Right to Work would send an important message, particularly a message to working class people, so why does the Governor not just say she will repeal it?

MiBiz – While campaigning this election season, what were you both hearing as the top concerns or needs of business owners?

Whitmer: Businesses everywhere, not just Michigan but across the country, are looking for employees. Growing our population and making sure people know: If you want to live a high quality of life with a low cost of living, Michigan’s the place to move to or build your business in. There are a lot of pieces that go into making Michigan competitive, but we’ve seen record small business growth, which tells me the entrepreneurial spirit is strong.

Gilchrist: First of all, (business owners) care a lot about the people working on their teams. So (we heard about) things like making sure there is adequate housing available for people so they could live and work close to one another. Making sure they have child care and people could trust where their kids were and they were safe and learning so they could be productive while working. These are things that we prioritized for the last four years because we heard business owners talk about these issues and how important they were for their quality of life. We want to build on the progress we’ve made in those areas.

GRIID – This question is expected, since MiBiz is a news source with a primary readership being business owners. When Governor Whitmer makes the statement, “f you want to live a high quality of life with a low cost of living, Michigan’s the place to move to or build your business in.” All I could think when I read this statement was – 1) Michigan does not have a low cost of living, not for hundreds of thousands of families that are living in poverty. Hell, even that State of Michigan acknowledges that, “1.5 million Michiganders struggle to afford the basic necessities of housing, child care, food, technology, health care and transportation.” The response from Gilchrist is even more outlandish, when he says, “business owners care a lot about the people working on their teams.” Does he actually believe this to be true, and if so, what evidence does he have to support it? 

MiBiz – What do you see as the best strategy for getting to the heart of the housing issue, which is creating more units?

Gilchrist: Our first ever statewide housing plan showed we need to have housing that works in every market: Housing for workforce or seasonal employees, single-family, multifamily, rehabbing, new construction. And that plan is pretty comprehensive in terms of how it addresses all of those things. As we work, we’ll also see a lot of new interest in smaller developers to meet the needs of local communities. An affordable, safe place to live is the starting point for people’s participation in the economy and civic life.  

GRIID – The last sentence from Gilchrist is somewhat agreeable, but he avoids talking about or at least directing people to what the actual statewide housing plan is, which you can find here. 

MiBiz – Can you discuss this administration’s focus on outdoor recreation as an economic engine, and your outlook for the industry’s growth potential?

Whitmer: Michigan is so unique. We have 20 percent of the world’s freshwater in and around our borders. We have four seasons and some phenomenal outfitters like Carhartt and Stormy Kromer, for instance. This is a national strength of ours that I don’t know we’ve ever really harnessed as well as we could. We put a lot of emphasis on it. We’ve made a record investment in our state parks, and I think this is really an opportunity for us. This is a way that we can build an industry, grow it here in Michigan, and capitalize on all the national strengths we have as a state.

GRIID – Why do things like outdoor recreation have to be framed in terms of generating profits? Why can’t we support families living in Michigan, by paying them a livable wage, so they actually have the time and resources to enjoy camping, hiking or other outdoor activities? Why the hell does the Governor even highlight companies like Carhartt and Stormy Kromer? Stop commodifying nature!

MiBiz – You also released a statewide climate action plan this year that calls for net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Do you anticipate legislative efforts to codify that through a stronger renewable energy standard or a vehicle emissions standard?

Whitmer: We know setting goals is one thing, but achieving them is another. We have to have industry really committed to the same goals we’ve laid out. We’re making progress. I think with this new makeup in the Legislature there will be an opportunity to do even more to codify a lot of pieces of the climate plan, and that’s something I’m very eager to get started.

GRIID – Achieving Climate Justice should be a high priority, but the Governor’s language is vague enough to avoid concrete policy stances. Hell, Enbridge is still operating Line 5, despite the promise from Governor Whitmer to shut it down. How can Michigan achieve Climate Justice when Climate fanatics like Enbridge are allowed to continue to put our future at risk? 

MiBiz – What can you say about the state’s pipeline of additional large battery manufacturing projects?

Whitmer: We’ve made some really amazing announcements in just this last year. And we worked across the aisle to sharpen our economic development tools. We moved fast, we were bipartisan, and we got it done. If we don’t win this decade, we could get left behind for a generation. We can’t just assume that because General Motors has a strong history in Michigan that they’re always going to be here. We had to compete, and we won — $7 billion investments in batteries in Lake Orion and Lansing. This has huge implications across our economy. We’ve got to put our foot on the accelerator. We’ve landed a lot of battery plants and EV production, but we can’t rest on our laurels. We’ve got to stay at it. 

GRIID – I know we are all supposed to be excited about the announcement in early 2022, that Michigan will begin major EV auto production, but this is NOT a sustainable solution, which we wrote about last year.

The week after the 2022 Elections, GRIID wrote a 3 part series, What Kind of Change Do We really want to see in Michigan. In that 3 part series we suggested policies changes that would primarily benefit working class people, BIPOC communities and others who are oppressed under the current business as usual policy framework for Michigan. The MiBiz interview with Whitmer and Gilchrist doesn’t suggest any real deviation from business as usual, which is why I believe that social movements will have to pressure the State government if they want to win their demands. Just ask yourself, if Michigan politicians really wanted to work for the people, would they first ask real people to prioritize what kinds of policy they want to see and then invite them to be part of a participatory budgeting process to have a real say in how their tax dollars are spent?

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