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Whitmer to focus on magnitude of road problem in speech

February 11, 2019
In this Jan. 31, 2019, file photo, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks to the media at the Michigan State Police headquarters in Dimondale, Mich. The first tussle between the Democratic Governor and the Republican-led Legislature isn't over how to fix the roads, overhaul school funding or tackle the state's high car insurance premiums. Instead, they're clashing over the environment _ specifically how Michigan adopts regulations and permit requirements for businesses and citizens. Whitmer recently abolished panels created last year. Now GOP lawmakers may reject her order. (Matthew Dae Smith/Lansing State Journal via AP, File)

LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said Monday she will discuss the magnitude of Michigan’s problem with poor roads and bridges in her first State of the State address, appealing to the public to give feedback on the costs of pothole-ridden infrastructure.

The Democrat, who made fixing infrastructure a top campaign priority, listed it among the “fundamentals that we’ve got to get right here in Michigan.” She will outline her plans Tuesday night in a televised speech in front of the Republican-led Legislature.

Other core issues include cleaning up drinking water and closing a “skills gap” in the workforce.

Detailed proposals will likely wait until she proposes her initial budget to lawmakers in March.

“The State of the State is focused on making sure that we are the home for opportunity, that our kids stay and that our future is secured,” Whitmer told The Associated Press.

A number of “newsworthy” items will be included in the address, she said, “but the rubber hits the roads with the budget.”

A state commission has said Michigan lags nearby states and the country in infrastructure spending and needs $4 billion more annually, including $2.2 billion for roads and bridges.

“I’m going to talk about the magnitude of the issue,” she said. “Bridges that have hundreds of temporary supports holding them up, potholes that are taking money away from family budgets for rent or child care, the incredible harm it does to our ability to keep the edge in mobility and to draw investment into Michigan.”

Whitmer said she also will encourage drivers and businesses to engage by “telling us what it’s cost.”

Another major topic will be workforce development — ensuring that companies can fill their jobs with in-state workers who have the proper training. The issue applies to all workers, she said, regardless of whether they have four-year college degrees, trade certificates or something in-between.

“Michigan needs to have a comprehensive plan where there’s a path for everyone,” she said, crediting former Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, for highlighting skilled trades. The state, she said, must develop a “specific way” to help not only high school graduates but also displaced workers and those who have a job but want to land a better one.

Whitmer’s speech before a joint session of the Legislature in the Capitol had been scheduled for Feb. 5 but was moved to avoid conflicting with President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address, which was delayed by the partial government shutdown. She said she considered speaking elsewhere if Tuesday had not worked, but “I do have a respect for the institution and for tradition” despite not being one for pomp and circumstance.

The State of the State speech is an early chance for Whitmer to lay out her vision, said Sara Wurfel, a Lansing-based communications consultant who was Snyder’s first press secretary. Eight years ago, Snyder put forward pro-business initiatives, endorsed the construction of a new bridge between Michigan and Canada, and announced a “dashboard” to measure the state’s progress in key areas.

Given the discord in Washington and Michigan’s new period of divided government, Wurfel said, Whitmer’s address may also be “a time to really show that Michiganders can work together.”

Whitmer said she will touch on her recent order to reorganize the state Department of Environmental Quality — to make the case that it is “critical” to efforts to clean up tap water — but she will not “dwell on it.” GOP lawmakers are considering whether to block the move because they want to keep intact new business-backed panels that were given a role in rule-making and permitting under 2018 laws.

She also will talk about work requirements for low-income adults in Michigan’s Medicaid expansion program. She wrote a letter to the federal government Friday accepting the terms of a waiver that authorized the new rules and let the expansion continue, but she also said she would be seeking changes because of her concerns over people losing coverage.

“We want to promote work, and we don’t want to lose health care in the process,” Whitmer said Monday. “If those are the two goals, there’s a lot we can work with and perhaps a lot we can do to meeting them both.”

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