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ICYMI | Advocacy in Action: Meet Michigan’s Legislative Leaders

On Friday, Jan. 28, the Chamber brought together state legislative leaders for Advocacy in Action: Meet Michigan’s Legislative Leaders, for a virtual discussion on the state and region’s most pressing issues. Joining the conversation were Mike Shirkey, Senate Majority Leader (R-16), Donna Lasinski, House Minority Leader (D-52), Sylvia Santana, State Senator (D-Detroit), and Andrew Fink, State Representative (R-Hillsdale). The leaders were joined by Zach Gorchow, executive editor and publisher at Gongwer, to moderate the conversation.

Gov. Whitmer’s Tax Proposals

The panel discussion came days after Gov. Whitmer gave her annual State of the State address, in which she largely focused on tax cut proposals, including repealing the tax on public sector pensions.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey shared that while he doesn’t support the repeal of the 2011 tax cut, he would support any broad-based tax relief for all pensioners, as long as they are fair. In addition, State Rep. Andrew Fink argued that the pension tax relief proposal isn’t enough for Michigan to become competitive in the current economy, as Michigan continues to fall behind other states.

Conversely, democrats were largely supportive of the Governor’s tax proposals, both on retirement income taxation and restoring the earned income tax level back to the 20% level. Sen. Sylvia Santana noted the need to support Michiganders directly and the importance of using state dollars to invest in people.

Added House Minority Leader Donna Lasinski, the focus of House democrats is on “long-term investments in Michigan that spur the economy, so we are really targeting proven tax breaks that return money to the economy and create growth in our state.”

“This is an opportunity, not only to review tax reductions and making Michigan more competitive, but also force us to do a prioritization of our spending,” noted Sen. Shirkey.

Cutting the Corporate Income Tax Rate

A current provision in the Senate package could reduce the corporate income tax rate from 6% to 3.9%, which Rep. Fink contended would make Michigan competitive as a modern economy and that Michigan doesn’t have the luxury of making small adjustments, as the state continues to fall behind.

Rep. Lasinski argued that the discussion is bigger than just what the corporate income tax rate should be, it needs to be about what corporations large and small need to be viable here in Michigan.

“Attractive places to live and work, attract talent and our businesses desperately need talent in Michigan,” said State Rep. Lasinski. “We need a strategy around skilled trade labor as well as advanced degrees.”

Added Sen. Santana, “We also need to take into consideration that we need to retool our labor force and make sure that opportunities exist for us to sustain talent in Michigan.”

State of the State and COVID-19

One point of discussion hit on the Governor’s focus on the COVID-19 pandemic during her annual State of the State speech.

Sen. Shirkey argued that COVID-19 was largely absent from the address, with State Rep. Fink agreeing that she failed to “acknowledge the role that her administration played in exacerbating some of the stresses put on our people and on our economy, due to COVID-19.”

While State Rep. Lasinski argued that the Governor’s goals for the future, including keeping children in school, “implied and stated directly that we can’t get there unless we deal with the pandemic and what is becoming endemic, it’s going to be an ongoing challenge. The Governor began her speech there and all of our goals are in that context of moving forward and through the pandemic.”

The Future of Education in Michigan

Currently, if less than 75% of students show up for a school day, the day does not count as an official school day. With the COVID-19 pandemic, this rule has caused stress for many school districts.

State Rep. Lasinski supported the notion of lowering that percentage marker, along with additional work to remove “obstacles and hurdles and understand what is really holding schools back from getting kids back in class,” whether it be testing shortages, labor shortages, or more.

For many school districts, like Detroit community schools, the flexibility of remote learning has been necessary as the country deals with spikes in COVID-19 numbers, due largely to the omicron variant.

“As we move forward, we have to continue an upward trajectory of investment in education, [and] think about our teachers who are also dealing with this pandemic,” noted Sen. Santana.

In the State of the State address, Gov. Whitmer stressed the need for children to be in-person at school for learning but seems uninterested in any state mandates.

While State Rep. Fink agreed that it generally makes more sense to allow local districts that are controlled by school boards elected by local citizens to make their own educational decisions, he noted that the conversation of state interference is getting more pressing.

“As the data mounts that extended virtual learning is extremely destructive to both the mental health and the educational achievement in those classrooms, I do think that it could be time for the legislature and Governor to take action that all the students in our state, regardless of what school district they are in, are getting the best opportunities that we can provide,” said State Rep. Fink.