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Whitmer seeks common ground with Legislature to end pandemic

January 28, 2021 GMT
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In a photo provided by the Michigan Office of the Governor, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer delivers her virtual State of the State address the state, Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021 in Lansing, Mich. (Michigan Office of the Governor via AP)
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In a photo provided by the Michigan Office of the Governor, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer delivers her virtual State of the State address the state, Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021 in Lansing, Mich. (Michigan Office of the Governor via AP)

LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer sought “common ground” with the Republican-led Legislature in her State of the State address Wednesday, calling for quick passage of a multibillion-dollar relief plan that would prioritize coronavirus vaccinations and additional aid to Michigan schools and businesses to help end the pandemic.

The $5.6 billion spending proposal, first announced last week, was among several policy initiatives outlined in the Democrat’s third annual speech — a virtual one in which she touted residents’ grit in a grueling crisis that has claimed thousands of lives.

“The state of our state is resilience,” the governor said.

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The address came hours after GOP lawmakers stepped up opposition to her administration’s COVID-19 restrictions, rejecting 13 of Whitmer’s appointees and saying the funding should not be approved unless she cedes her administration’s power to prohibit activities such as high school sports to local health departments.

“While common ground seems less and less common these days, it’s never been more important that we work toward it,” Whitmer said. “I know you’re used to me saying ‘fix the damn roads.’ This year, let’s also fix the damn road ahead — find common ground to grow our economy and get families and businesses back on their feet. That starts by ending the pandemic.”

The virus, which has resulted in 600,000-plus cases in Michigan and contributed to the deaths of more than 15,300 residents in 10 months, continues to dominate the governor’s attention. She delivered the 24-minute speech virtually from her office inside the Capitol rather than in person to protect hundreds of legislators and dignitaries who typically would gather in a packed House chamber.

Though a majority of the public has backed her handling of the pandemic, she has faced GOP criticism, a lawsuit and protests — egged on by then-President Donald Trump — over restrictions such as mask mandates and indoor restaurant dining bans. The speech occurred the same day one of six men accused of plotting to kidnap her last week pleaded guilty. The FBI has said the armed anti-government extremists were upset over her orders.

Whitmer said the rules have saved lives, but she acknowledged the toll on small businesses and asked the Legislature to help enact the next round of pandemic aid, including federal vaccine distribution funds.

“Every eligible Michigander who wants a vaccine will get one,” she said, asking for patience and noting the objective is to inoculate at least 70% of people age 16 and up. “This process is like a locomotive. It will be cumbersome and slow in the beginning, but it will get faster and smoother as we go.”

Her proposal would spend $575 million in state funds along with $5 billion in federal relief authorized before Trump left office. The state funding would help K-12 schools offer face-to-face instruction and include grants to restaurants and other “placed-based” businesses hurt by the outbreak.

Republican legislators do not necessarily oppose such spending, having backed grants to workers and businesses as recently as December. But they contend Whitmer’s governing style has been unilateral and not bipartisan. They oppose the state’s 25% capacity limit for restaurants that will resume indoor dining next week after a 2 1/2-month ban, as well an ongoing prohibition against youth contact sports.

“The people we represent did not consent to Gov. Whitmer’s continued closures. The people of Michigan want and deserve answers,” Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey and House Speaker Jason Wentworth said in a statement.

The governor said her administration this year will aggressively focus on economic growth and getting people back to work. She asked the Legislature to renew expired tax incentives to support large-scale business expansions, though similar legislation died last term.

She also returned to a pre-pandemic priority that she pledged to address while campaigning for governor: fixing the roads and other infrastructure. At last year’s State of the State, she announced that Michigan would borrow $3.5 billion to rebuild the state’s deteriorating highways and bridges over five years after her proposed 45-cents-a-gallon fuel tax hike was rejected. The bonding is not being used to repair local roads.

Michigan is one of few states with a restrictive local road-funding structure, according to the governor’s office. Legislation that would have let counties seek voter approval of local gas taxes and registration fees stalled last session. It should be passed, Whitmer said, so local communities “can move some dirt, too.”

The governor also urged legislative approval of a $500 million water infrastructure plan that was unveiled in the fall, a permanent $2 hourly raise for direct care workers, and bills to lower prescription drug costs and require price transparency. Whitmer, who is up for reelection in 2022, said this year she will launch a “fixing the damn road ahead” tour to engage with residents.

She also announced that teachers next month will receive up to $500 each for their work transitioning to remote instruction last spring. K-12 support staff will get up to $250. The state enacted the funding last summer.

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Follow David Eggert at https://twitter.com/DavidEggert00