Question 1): Gov. Gretchen Whitmer used a mini-State of the State speech last Wednesday a few blocks from the state capitol building to call on the Michigan Legislature to repeal “politically motivated” and “medically unnecessary” laws that limit access to abortion.
The second-term Democrat wants to “repeal waiting periods and other … hurdles that make it harder for women to get abortions and for doctors to treat their patients,” she said. “With a U.S. Supreme Court that’s shown it can and will strip away basic rights, Michigan must be proactive and repeal antiquated state laws.”
What “hurdles?” Abortion rights activists hope the list includes repealing a longstanding parental consent law for minors, and also striking a 24-hour waiting period statute, removing limitations on insurance coverage and ending what they call “medically irrelevant regulations” and building code requirements for abortion providers.
The governor also proposed a 100% renewable energy mandate and a broad paid sick leave law for Michigan workers.
Whitmer went even further — the governor called on lawmakers to codify protections in the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) in the event legal challenges thwart the federal health care law. She called for adding to state law protections for pre-existing conditions, allowing young adults to stay on their parents’ health insurance plan, banning annual or lifetime caps, and requiring insurance plans to cover essential services. Whitmer additionally said she hopes to establish an independent prescription drug affordability board to lower the cost of prescription drugs.
Republican legislators were quick to respond. House Minority Leader Matt Hall (R-Kalamazoo area); Minority House Floor Leader Bryan Posthumus (R-Rockford); and state Reps. Andrew Beeler (R-Port Huron); Mark Tisdel (R-Rochester Hills); and Mark Harris (R-Clarkston) all bashed the governor’s proposals, especially her demand for 100% carbon-free electricity production by 2035.
Here’s what Senate Minority Leader Aric Nesbitt (R-Lawton) had to say: “Gov. Whitmer has demonstrated that her bridge-building rhetoric was always insincere and is showing herself as the left-wing, progressive extremist she really is. Unfortunately, it has become painfully obvious that what’s next for the people of Michigan is bad news for their pocketbooks.”
“On the heels of the highest inflation experienced in four decades, Gov. Whitmer is still fighting to increase income taxes on hardworking families and impose new tax burdens on small businesses and charitable nonprofits,” Nesbitt said. “Instead of supporting proven policies put in place to lower taxes, reduce oppressive regulations, invest in infrastructure, and provide access to reliable and affordable energy, the governor is doubling down on radical policies that will do the opposite, crippling economic growth and super-charging inflation.”
So, does Whitmer really think she can get a lot of this stuff enacted this fall? What are her chances of succeeding?
Answer 1): Slim and none. In trying to get majority Democrats in the Legislature to repeal parental consent for minors’ abortions is playing with fire for any incumbent Dem in a marginal district. And the governor’s other proposals, many of them major policy shifts with long-term ramifications, must require extensive work — including public hearings — if there is any chance they can be done in a thoughtful, productive way. There is too little time available in a fall session for that to happen. Could she be trying to set the table for action next year? 2024 is an election year, traditionally not a time when the heavy lifting on controversial issues is done with an election looming. No, this must be about something else of greater interest to the governor. Otherwise, Whitmer might be wise to listen to the words of former state Rep. Bob Traxler (D-Bay City), also a long-term Congressman, after his party blew a huge, 36-seat majority in 1966 — “We just did too much.” But that was before Whitmer was born, and if she knows about it, she seems not to care.
Question 2):): In a bold, unexpected move, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed an executive order last month establishing a new “Michigan Department of Lifelong Education, Advancement, and Potential” (MiLEAP), which is aimed ostensibly at bringing the state’s early childhood and higher education programs within a single department under her administration’s control. Whitmer’s order takes effect Dec. 1.
As a result, earlier this month state Superintendent of Public Instruction Michael Rice asked Attorney General Dana Nessel to issue an opinion on the constitutionality of the new department, questioning whether the order creates duplicative education departments under the Michigan Constitution with overlapping authority. Nessel has replied that it’s “too early” for her to rule on that, but for now she doesn’t see a “conflict” between the order and SBE authority.
In addition to providing administrative support to the board, the state’s Education Department currently certifies teachers, provides funds to educational organizations, assists school districts and provides early education support for low-income families. Under the state constitution, the State Board of Education is tasked with appointing Michigan’s Superintendent of Public Instruction. Board members are asking for constitutional clarity from Nessel’s office as the broad scope of the new department overlaps with the State Board’s responsibilities in several key areas, including teacher assessment and curriculum assignments.
Some legislative Republicans have already blasted Whitmer’s proposal. “There is no reason for MiLEAP to exist other than the vanity of Governor Whitmer,” said state Rep. Angela Rigas (R-Alto). “The only thing this new department does different is give the governor more control. I applaud state board members for pushing back against that … I agree that we need to improve our education policies in this state, but we could do so much simpler and cheaper if the governor’s ego would get out of the way.”
State Rep. Alicia St. Germaine (R-Harrison Twp) added this: “At a time when we should be working collectively to address the education crisis brewing in our state, the governor has chosen to act unilaterally and push her own plan. Adding more bureaucrats and new layers to our education system without fixing the problems that already exist is not going to help our kids. Shifting billions of dollars away from classrooms to fund unnecessary projects for politically connected districts won’t teach kids to read and write. This runaway train needs to be stopped.”
The basic questions are: Should Whitmer have issued this order? Is it a good idea? Can it exacerbate rather than solve the very educational problems the state has long encountered and that seem to have helped sink Michigan to the bottom of national rankings in educational achievement?
Answer 2): Whatever hopes for her new agency Whitmer may have, they’re unlikely to work any better than anything else has in the past six decades since the 1961-62 state Constitutional Convention abolished the position of State Superintendent of Public Instruction as an elected statewide office (Democrat Lynn Bartlett was the last one we had).
In Bartlett’s place, what Con-Con created (and the state’s voters approved as part of our current Constitution) is the much ridiculed state Board of Education (SBE), eight members who are elected statewide (Michigan is the only state that does this). Virtually nobody knows who they are, but the SBE appoints the Supt. of Public Instruction, and some Michigan governors, frustrated because they have very limited influence on what happens with higher and K-12 education in Michigan, have tried to dictate who the state “Super” is. Former Gov. Jennifer Granholm got the holdover state Supt. kicked out and her own choice appointed by a Democrat-controlled SBE. Did that make a difference? Nope.
Maybe Whitmer believes, “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.” Hers is a new approach, but it appears clumsy and not well thought-out, and has alienated members of her own Democratic Party, who weren’t invited to “buy-in” on the governor’s plan. It reinforces the growing image of Whitmer as an autocrat who decides what she’ll do when she wants to do it, with limited interest in trying to achieve ‘consensus’ or cooperation with anyone or any entity in state government that might have ideas other than her own. If Whitmer really wants to make a difference, she should get some changes to the basic law, or a constitutional amendment resolution, passed by the Legislature to abolish or drastically alter the SBE. What has been the biggest impediment to that over time? Her own Democratic Party, because they have relished controlling it (as they do now, by a 6-2 margin) almost always. And they sure don’t want to end the political careers of elected Democratic statewide members.