Lansing — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has signed two laws, issued 21 executive orders or directives, closed state government three days due to inclement winter weather and proposed a controversial 45-cent gas tax increase.
For the East Lansing Democrat, her first 100 days in office have felt like “drinking from a fire hose, and I think every day of every governor’s life feels like that,” Whitmer told The Detroit News in an exclusive interview.
“There’s been a lot that’s gone on in these first 100 days, but I feel like we’ve set the tone and conversation (for) where we’re headed, and I feel good about it.”
Presiding over the state’s first period of divided government in eight years, Whitmer has used executive authority to advance some pieces of a liberal agenda, including actions to fight climate change and create stronger anti-discrimination protections for gay and transgender state workers. She also has tried to sell her proposed 171% hike of the existing 26.3-cents-a-gallon gas tax at 18 public event across the state.
Whitmer has not backed off the gas tax plan despite GOP opposition. She has told residents she is willing to stake her political career on the road funding fight, vowing to fill potholes despite political landmines with an insistence that has defined her early tenure.
“I mean this in a positive way: I think in some ways in terms of background and experience, (Whitmer) is a lot more like John Engler than either Jennifer Granholm or Rick Snyder was,” said Michigan Chamber of Commerce President Rich Studley, comparing her to the former Republican governor known for cutting deals.
“She starts with the advantage in having served in the House and Senate and also is just more knowledgeable about a lot of the details and operations of state government.”
Borrowing from Engler, Whitmer has resumed “quadrant” meetings with both Democratic and Republican legislative leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey of Clarklake and House Speaker Lee Chatfield of Levering. They’ve met four times, most recently Tuesday, and Whitmer chatted privately with Shirkey later that same day.
“For whatever disagreements they may have publicly with one another, they communicate on a very regular basis,” said Shirkey spokeswoman Amber McCann.
“Ideally with divided government, it’s an opportunity to challenge one another, but ultimately solve problems where we can find common ground,” Whitmer said. “It doesn’t have to look like Washington, D.C.”
Gas tax tenacity
The 45-cent gas tax hike is the centerpiece of her agenda. She calls it a “real solution” to fix crumbling infrastructure and a key part of her $60.2 billion budget that also would boost K-12 classroom spending by the largest amount in a generation, according to the administration.
“Frankly, I give her credit for being brave enough to know that this issue was going to be a lightning rod but still putting herself in every community to hear that feedback,” said Lonnie Scott, executive director of the liberal advocacy group Progress Michigan.
When congressional Republicans were pushing to repeal the federal health care law, “they canceled their town halls,” Scott said. “But Gretchen has scheduled more knowing that it’s a tough issue to talk about.”
Tony Daunt, executive director of the conservative Michigan Freedom Fund, disagreed, calling it “bizarre” for Whitmer to tour the state promoting “a policy that is so unpopular with the public.”
“This seems to be a very uninspiring first 100 days,” said Daunt, a regular Whitmer critic. “There’s really been nothing in terms of creativity in policy making.”
The governor said she was not sure what to expect when she took her budget presentation on the road but has found most audiences receptive and urged them to back local lawmakers willing to take a tough vote.
“When people see the magnitude of the problem that I’m trying to address, it changes how they view the gas tax,” Whitmer said. “The Legislature, for better or worse, is very sensitive to public sentiment, and it’s important for them that the public understand what we’re trying to do.”
While GOP leaders have called her gas tax proposal a non-starter, Whitmer has made clear she won’t accept half measures on road funding. She has tried to put the onus on Republicans to propose a viable alternative to her plan, which would also raise the Earned Income Tax Credit to offset the impact of a gas tax hike on low-wage workers.
“Historically if you do these things early in your administration, you can recover from them,” said Republican strategist Tom Shields, noting then-Gov. Jim Blanchard raised the individual income tax rate in 1983 but won re-election three years later.
“Whitmer is savvy enough to know and experienced enough to know that that’s when you try controversial things,” he said. “If she were to pass this, from her standpoint, she would enjoy all of the orange barrels between now and her re-election campaign. Get it done now so you can enjoy it.”
Former Gov. Rick Snyder got off to a fast start during his first 100 days in office, but he had help from his own party, where the Republican-led Legislature was a friendly ally rather than a looming roadblock.
Snyder had signed 16 bills through the first three months of 2011, including a tougher emergency manager law that voters would later overturn and repeal of a state law that had required retailers to put price tags on most goods.
Whitmer’s early tenure is more comparable to 2003, when Democrat Granholm took office but was hamstrung by Republicans who controlled both the state House and Senate.
Granholm had signed one bill into law by early April, but like Whitmer had flexed her muscle through five executive orders and 11 executive directives.
Whitmer has so far outpaced her, signing two bills into law while issuing eight executive orders and 13 executive directives during her first 100 days in office.
Whitmer said on the trail “she would use every power available to her as governor to move her agenda forward,” and that’s what she’s doing, said Jen Eyer, a partner at Vanguard Public Affairs who worked on Whitmer’s campaign for three months in early 2017.
Whitmer clashed with Republicans and business groups over her initial order to reshape state environmental efforts and eliminate rule and permit review panels created last year. Lawmakers rejected the order, the first such move since 1977.
But Whitmer signed a revised order and is on pace to successfully create the new Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy by the end of the month. She has not given up the fight against the controversial oversight committees. Instead, she has asked Attorney General Dana Nessel, a fellow Democrat, to review their legality.
The directives signed by Whitmer are limited in scope because they apply only to state government and its employees. They include additional non-discrimination protections for state workers, new rules to limit gender pay gap inequities and an order for state departments to align anti-climate change efforts.
While her party lacks power in the Legislature, Whitmer has a powerful ally in Nessel. The two have worked in tandem to undo a major deal Snyder signed with Enbridge to move a controversial oil pipeline into a new tunnel that would be drilled far below the lake bed of the Straits of Mackinac.
In a formal legal opinion that frustrated business groups and is likely to spur court action, Nessel deemed the tunnel authority law Snyder signed unconstitutional. Whitmer quickly issued an executive directive halting state agencies from any work on the project.
Business groups have criticized the move, but upending Snyder’s Line 5 tunnel plan is probably Whitmer’s “biggest tangible accomplishment so far,” Eyer said.
“I think she has come out of the gate demonstrating that she’s not going to be cowed by the fact that the Democrats don’t control either house of the Legislature.”
Whitmer has not yet challenged the 1953 easement that allows Line 5 to run through the Straits, as promised on the campaign trail. She also has not ruled out the possibility of a revised plan for tunnel construction, which unions support as a major job creator.
“I know the Legislature tried to tie my hands at the end of last year,” Whitmer said. “I suspected they made some errors in doing so, and sure enough that’s what the attorney general concluded.”
Whitmer said her administration is doing its “due diligence” and trying to find “a superior way of making sure we’ve got energy needs met in the Upper Peninsula and keep our water safe.”
Whitmer’s early tenure has drawn praise from environmental and public education groups, but she has developed a more complicated relationship with business groups that last fall largely supported her Republican opponent.
The Michigan Chamber and others have blasted Whitmer’s budget proposal to raise small business taxes to pay for repeal of the state’s co-called senior pension tax. But they’ve mostly rallied around the governor’s push for more infrastructure spending and talent development. She’s urged them to work with her on the latter issues even if they fight the former.
“There are issues we are and will be vigorously opposed on, the small business tax being one of those,” said former Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, who is now president of the Small Business Association of Michigan. “But I think … the areas where she’s decided to spend her political capital are areas where the attention or focus is needed the most.”