Whitmer says roads, education in crisis; touts tuition plan

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LANSING, Mich. (AP) -- Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Tuesday identified two major crises facing Michigan — aging infrastructure and a lagging education system — while promising to soon propose a “real solution” to fix the roads and touting a tuition-free plan that would help high school graduates attend college or get vocational training.

WATCH SPEECH HERE

The Democrat, in her first State of the State address, said she did not run to “manage the decline of our state” but rather to make sure it “is one where our kids stay and families thrive.”

Whitmer announced a goal of increasing the number of residents with a post-secondary credential — an industry certificate, associate degree or higher — to 60 percent by 2030, from 44 percent as of 2016.

She also proposed that the state provide graduating high schoolers two years of tuition-free education at a community college — with no means testing — or a two-year maximum $2,500 annual scholarship to those attending a four-year college or university. The latter would only qualify with a minimum 3.0 GPA and a household income under $80,000. Adults 25 and older also could receive financial support.

“It will make Michigan the first Midwestern state to guarantee community college for all,” Whitmer said during a 55-minute televised speech before the Republican-led Legislature.

She focused on the state of K-12 education, as well, saying Michigan had the worst decline in childhood literacy among states measured every year since 2014.

Third-graders rank in the bottom 10 in literacy, she said, while K-12 spending has seen the lowest growth of any state in the past 25 years.

“Our students are not broken. Our teachers are not broken. It’s our system that has been broken. While we can’t fix it overnight and greater investment alone won’t be enough, we are going to do it because 2 million kids in Michigan are counting on us,” said Whitmer, who is expected to call for a large K-12 funding boost in her budget.

“Let’s be clear: This is not happening because Michigan kids are less talented,” she said. “It’s not happening because our kids are less motivated. It’s not happening because our educators are less dedicated. It is happening because generations of leadership have failed them.”

The education crisis, Whitmer said, hurts companies that cannot fill their jobs with in-state workers who have the proper training. She said vast majority of jobs require some form of postsecondary education, whether it’s a degree or a skills certification. But only 44 percent of the workforce has such a credential.

“Simply put, that’s not good enough for Michigan to compete,” Whitmer said.

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

The roads, which were given a D- grade by the American Society of Civil Engineers, will only worsen “if we don’t act boldly and swiftly,” Whitmer said.

She encouraged drivers and business owners to share on social media the effects of poor-quality roads. The #FTDR hashtag is short for her “fix the damn roads” message.

“We need to act now, before a catastrophe strikes or the situation becomes truly unrecoverable,” she said while warning of water infrastructure problems as well.

The cost of her proposals was not divulged, which is typical for State of the State addresses in which governors often stick to broader governing themes and goals. Costs will be outlined in her March 5 budget proposal, said budget director Chris Kolb.

“It sounds like a lot of priorities that are going to cost a lot of money,” said Republican Rep. James Lower of Cedar Lake. He agreed that road conditions are a problem but said legislators have been putting more money into construction for a number of years.

“There’s more work to do there, but just throwing more money into it right now — a lot of it would end up getting wasted because there isn’t the capacity and workforce for it,” he said.

Also Tuesday, Whitmer said Michigan should become the 17th state to adopt a hands-free law restricting the use of mobile devices while driving, except in 911 emergencies. Texting and driving is prohibited under current law. She said “you cannot navigate the road if you are looking at your phone” and introduced the family of Mitchel Kiefer, a Michigan State University freshman who was killed in 2016 by a distracted driver on Interstate 96.

Whitmer, a former legislator, said “there was nothing that amazed me more than parents that could channel the loss of their child into a crusade to protect other people’s kids.”

She highlighted her recent moves to reorganize and rename the state environmental department, ban state government and its contractors from discriminating against LGBT people, and join Michigan in the U.S. Climate Alliance — a coalition of governors seeking state-level action after President Donald Trump announced plans to withdraw from an international climate accord.

Whitmer also urged passage of legislation to add LGBTQ protections to the state civil rights law — which is unlikely to advance in the GOP-controlled Legislature — and bills to subject the governor’s office and lawmakers to public records requests.

Use the link below to watch the address.