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Whitmer Calls for Unity, Says Continued Efforts and Vaccines Will End Pandemic

January 27, 2021

Detroit Free Press

By Paul Egan and Dave Boucher

LANSING – Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer sounded a hopeful note in her third State of the State address Wednesday, delivered online for the first time in Michigan history amid a pandemic that could soon be significantly reduced because of vaccine distribution.

On a night typically dedicated to pomp and procedure in front of lawmakers and dignitaries inside the state Capitol, Whitmer spoke directly to the camera, surrounded by only a few staff members, and used the virtual speech to reflect on challenges and achievements over the last year while calling for unity moving forward.

“It’s easy to look back on this last year and focus on the bad,” Whitmer said in a speech that took less than 30 minutes to deliver. “But we cannot forget the actions we took to protect ourselves and our families.

“The state of our state is resilient.”

Still, the actions Whitmer has taken to combat the pandemic, from a state of emergency to a temporary stay-at-home order, have been at the center of considerable friction between the Democratic governor and the Republican-controlled Legislature. GOP lawmakers continued to try to block the governor’s actions and appointments just hours before her speech.

In an address lacking in major new announcements, Whitmer set out plans she said would ramp up vaccinations to at least 70% of Michigan’s population as soon as possible, help unemployed people and small businesses hurt by the pandemic, and get kids safely back in classrooms by her desired goal of March 1.

“The quicker we do this, the quicker we’ll have the normalcy we all crave,” Whitmer said of the vaccination effort.

Despite the current rancor, Whitmer chose to see the glass as half full in her appeal to the Legislature, noting that she and lawmakers had worked together on criminal justice reforms and state budgets, among other issues, while fighting the pandemic last legislative session.

“Despite all these crises, and the gridlock in Washington, we took real bipartisan action to get things done for you and your family,” the governor said.

“Let’s commit to the strong bipartisan action we took last year and focus that same energy to end the pandemic, grow our economy and get our kids back on track.”

There is serious doubt, though, whether bipartisan cooperation will occur this year.

Sandy Baruah, president and CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber, said Whitmer delivered the speech well, struck a positive tone, and had “something for everyone.”

“I think the elephant in the room for those of us who follow these things is the relationship between the governor and the Legislature was not good in 2020 and it’s not off to a good start in 2021, so we worry about that.”

Whitmer delivered her speech hours after the first of six men charged by the federal government in October with plotting to kidnap her entered a guilty plea in federal court in Grand Rapids.

Whitmer noted Michigan has so far administered more than 800,000 vaccines and performed more than 9.6 million coronavirus tests. She said that Michigan, which saw severe outbreaks in Detroit early in the pandemic, has been a national leader in highlighting and reducing racial disparities related to COVID-19.

Among new measures Whitmer called for, or earlier announced ones that she highlighted:

  • The “Michigan Back to Work” plan: Whitmer said the proposal would include “initiatives and projects big and small” to help grow the economy. While the governor did not include many specifics with the idea, she did reference the Good Jobs for Michigan legislation, a business incentive plan that was formerly state law but has since expired. Republicans blasted the idea Wednesday, calling it corporate welfare.
  • The MI Clean Water plan: Although Whitmer announced this $500 million plan last year, she said the Legislature still needs to pass bills to ensure it’s enacted. The plan includes more than $200 million to improve sewer systems and $100 million to replace lead pipes.
  • Vaccinating Michiganders: Whitmer still aims to vaccinate 70% of the population that is 16 or older this year by injecting 50,000 shots a day. Although more than 800,000 Michiganders have received a vaccine, the state is currently not on pace to meet that goal. “The quicker we do this, the quicker we’ll have the normalcy we all crave — family gatherings, travel, graduations, concerts and more,” Whitmer said.
  • A call on the Legislature to make permanent a $2-per-hour wage hike for direct care workers such as those in home health care or child care. The increase was initiated in March, using federal stimulus funds, but was framed as a temporary hazard pay increase tied to the pandemic.
  • Plans for a statewide “Fixing the Damn Road Ahead” listening tour to hear from Michiganders.
  • Her recently announced $5.6-billion plan that relies heavily on federal funds to increase vaccination efforts, help schools safely offer more in-person classes and give struggling businesses and families the aid they need. She repeated her call for lawmakers to quickly approve the plan, which is facing resistance over GOP lawmakers’ demands for more control.
  • In advance of Wednesday’s speech, Whitmer promised a boost in capital spending on roads, largely as a result of the sale of $800 million in bonds last fall, to a record nearly $3.6 billion this year, up from just under $2 billion in 2020.
    Support for more road funding options for local governments, which could include county-specific gas taxes or registration fees, if first approved by local voters.
    Again called on the Legislature to permanently extend unemployment insurance benefits to 26 weeks, as has been in place for much of the pandemic, up from 20 weeks, which is the current extent of benefits in Michigan.

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