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Whitmer State of the State 2024: Did she meet last year's goals?

michigan gov. gretchen whitmer state of the union in 2023
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, pictured during her 2023 State of the State address, muscled through a slew of priorities last year with the help of a Democratic-majority Legislature. But she didn’t win every battle. (Courtesy)
  • Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s 2024 State of the State address is 7 p.m. Wednesday
  • In 2023, Whitmer benefited from outright Democratic majorities in both chambers, but current House tie complicates 2024 plans
  • Whitmer scored big on some issues, while others came with heavy edits

Backed by a Democratic legislative majority, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer was able to check off most of the top priorities she outlined in her 2023 State of the State address — but on issues like abortion and economic development, it wasn’t a complete slam dunk. 

Ahead of Whitmer’s 2024 State of the State address set for 7 p.m. Wednesday in Lansing, Bridge Michigan analyzed the governor’s top priorities from last year to see how her ideas fared. 

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Whitmer last year sought gun control measures, approval of programs to reduce taxes for low-income workers and seniors, expansions of legal rights for LGBTQ residents and those seeking abortions and universal preschool for 4-year-olds. 

Related: How to watch Gretchen Whitmer’s 2024 State of the State address

She didn’t get everything she wanted through the Legislature, but she got quite a bit of it. In 2023, Whitmer benefited heavily from having a slim Democratic majority in both the House and Senate, who were largely receptive to the governor’s wish list — so much so that the governor offered a bonus slate of priorities in the fall.

With the House now tied between Democrats and Republicans and an election cycle underway, the dynamics will be different this year. To get a bill passed and on her desk, Whitmer at minimum will need the support of one House Republican, at least until special elections in two Democratic-leaning Southeast Michigan districts are held. 

We’ll hear more about what Whitmer hopes to accomplish in 2024 during her State of the State address on Wednesday night. Here’s a look at how the governor’s 2023 priorities fared:

Make headway on gun reforms: Yes

The goal: Whitmer sought ‘commonsense’ gun control measures, arguing: “The time for only thoughts and prayers is over.”

What happened: Buoyed by activism after the Oxford and Michigan State University school shootings, Democrats made quick work of proposed gun reform legislation long championed by gun control advocates.

gun control advocates holding signs
Gun reform measures long pushed by Democrats and advocates were signed into law last spring. (Bridge file photo by Yue Stella Yu)

Two months after a mass shooting at Michigan State University, Whitmer signed laws at the campus requiring gun owners to securely store their firearms and establishing universal background checks for gun purchases. A month later, Whitmer signed related “red flag” legislation allowing court orders to prevent people posing a risk to themselves or others from possessing a gun.

Later in 2023, Whitmer signed laws banning convicted domestic abusers from owning guns for eight years. Over objections from Republicans, the Michigan Capitol Commission also banned everyone except lawmakers from carrying guns into the state Capitol building.

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Targeted tax relief: Yes

The goal: Calling it her “Lowering MI Costs” plan, Whitmer proposed reversing two tax code changes made by her predecessor, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, by repealing the so-called “retirement tax” and expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit, which she redubbed the Working Families Tax Credit. 

What happened: Whitmer signed her tax relief plan into law less than two months later. The administration estimates 500,000 older Michiganders will save an average of $1,000 from repeal of the retirement tax. About 700,000 lower-income households are expected to save an average of $600 from expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit.

gov. gretchen whitmer holding check
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, center, celebrates a “retirement tax” repeal that is expected to save qualifying seniors an average of $1,000 per year once fully implemented by 2026 (Bridge photo by Jonathan Oosting)

The legislative process was quick, but not without drama. Republicans might have backed the legislation on its own but ended up blasting the final product because Whitmer declined to extend a temporary cut in the state’s income tax rate that had been triggered by soaring revenues. Republicans even took that fight to court – arguing the broader income tax cut should have been permanent – but have so far lost the legal battle. 

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Repeal abortion restrictions: Incomplete

The goal: Whitmer wanted a repeal of “politically motivated, medically unnecessary restrictions” on abortion and sought to improve abortion access with the Reproductive Health Act.

What happened: Whitmer and legislative Democrats successfully repealed old laws on the books banning abortion last spring after they were nullified by the November 2022 passage of Proposal 3, a constitutional amendment codifying abortion rights. 

gov. gretchen whitmer signing bills protecting reproduction rights
Measures Whitmer signed into law in 2023 — the "Reproductive Health Act" and related bills — repeal a number of abortion restrictions that were supported by Whitmer’s Republican predecessors. (Bridge photo by Lauren Gibbons)

The Reproductive Health Act was a heavier lift, and sponsors had to make big concessions to get the bills through the Legislature after Republicans and Democratic state Rep. Karen Whitsett of Detroit opposed plans to eliminate a 24-hour waiting period between abortion consultations and procedures and allow government-run Medicaid insurance to pay for abortions.

The final version repealed various abortion clinic regulations and a 2015 law that required women to purchase a separate insurance “rider” if they wanted their policy to cover abortion. 

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Expand LGBTQ rights: Yes

The goal: Whitmer called for expanding the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act “so you can’t be fired or evicted because of who you are or how you identify” and making the state more friendly to LGBTQ residents. 

What happened: A decades-long fight to include anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ residents in state law came to fruition in 2023. 

pride flag
An expansion to Michigan’s anti-discrimination law gives additional protections to LGBTQ residents in business, housing and employment (Shutterstock)

When the law takes effect next month, employers won’t be able to fire or refuse to hire a person because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, and landlords or real estate agents cannot refuse to rent or sell a property to a person on those grounds. Businesses will also be barred from denying goods or services to LGBTQ patrons.

Whitmer and legislative Democrats also successfully made Michigan the 22nd state to ban conversion therapy for minors, a practice that researchers, experts and LGBTQ advocates say increases the risk of mental health issues and suicide attempts among LGBTQ youths

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Election reforms: Yes

The goal: Whitmer vowed to work with new Democratic majorities in the Legislature to “expand voting rights, protect election workers” and build on a 2022 law meant to make it easier to vote for overseas military members and their families.

What happened: Whitmer in May signed a new law allowing clerks to count overseas military absentee ballots for up to six days after an election as long as they were postmarked prior. 

In July, the governor signed another package to formally implement a voter-approved ballot proposal that wrote new voting rights into the Michigan Constitution, including up to nine days of early in-person voting and pre-paid absentee ballot applications. 

gov. gretchen whitmer at a bill signing
Whitmer said the election bills uphold “American values of freedom and democracy.” (Courtesy photo)

And Whitmer capped the effort in late-November by signing bills to criminalize poll worker intimidation, regulate political ads that use artificial intelligence and tighten the election certification process that former President Donald Trump tried to disrupt following his 2020 loss.

Read more: 

‘Fix the damn roads:’ Incomplete

The goal: In her 2023 speech, Whitmer returned to her 2018 campaign promise by vowing to “continue finding ways to keep fixing the damn roads.” Beyond fixes, she also proposed building “the most innovative transportation system in the country” with new “smart road technology.”

What happened: The damn roads are not yet fixed, and Whitmer didn't do much to change that last year. The budget she signed in July boosted total state transportation funding by about $500 million, but $118 million of that was to pay off debt, and her own population council later reported that the state needs another $3.9 billion each year to really fix the problem. 

potholes on road
A truck approaches a pothole on Mellon Street in Detroit. Experts fear the state of Michigan’s roads will continue to deteriorate without a long-term funding solution. (Bridge photo by Brayan Gutierrez)

The governor has expressed interest in — but not yet committed to — more aggressive ideas to overhaul the state’s road funding scheme, such as moving to a miles-driven tax or turning some highways into toll roads. 

Read more: 

Economic development: Incomplete 

The goal: Whitmer sought a “sustainable funding source for our economic development efforts” in her last State of the State speech, promoting her “Make it in Michigan” plan as a vehicle for attracting new jobs to the state.

What happened: Whitmer secured long-term funding for the Strategic Outreach and Attraction Reserve (SOAR) Fund early in 2023, and the state has struck a handful of deals with electric vehicle battery plants.

trucks in the field
Construction is underway in Marshall, turning hundreds of acres of farmland into an EV battery factory. A $2 billion incentive package from the state is helping Ford Motor Co. make the investment in the new, $3.5 billion factory.v (Bridge photo by David Ruck)

But the efforts have faced pushback amid concerns that few guardrails exist for companies benefiting from billions of dollars in benefits, and some Democratic lawmakers are pushing for legislation to rein in the SOAR program and ensure companies are creating the high-paying jobs they promise.

Read more: 

Universal preschool: Making progress

The goal: Whitmer asked lawmakers to create a universal preschool program by expanding the Great Start Readiness Program to cover all 4-year-old children in the state within the next four years, about 110,000 kids.

What happened: Making the program universal is an idea Whitmer first proposed in 2019, but one she now hopes to achieve with the state’s new Democratic-controlled Legislature. Families could save an average of $10,000 a year in child care costs, she previously said.

teacher surrounded by children
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer wants to expand free preschool access to all 4-year-olds by the end of her second term. (Bridge Michigan file photo)

The budget includes an additional $72 million to help expand the state’s Great Start Readiness Program. The funding allows for providers to expand programming from four days a week to five days a week and increase the number of weeks per year the program is offered.

Student eligibility is primarily based on household income and leaders expanded what household incomes qualify students for the state Pre-K program. 

The Michigan Department of Education previously oversaw the Great Start Readiness Program. Whitmer moved the program to her new education agency called the Michigan Department of Lifelong Education, Advancement, and Potential

Read more: 

More money for child care: Yes

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The goal: Whitmer also called for increasing the number of families getting a state subsidy for child care. 

What happened: State data shows a marked increase in the number of children getting the subsidy.

But not all of that help occurred in 2023; lawmakers in 2021 and 2022 poured money into child care by lowering eligibility levels — Michigan was once one of the stingiest in the nation — and increasing funding.

 

The number of children getting a child-care subsidy jumped 41% from 26,551 in December 2021 to 37,546 last month. 

Economists said it was one of the best ways to help employers because it would allow more people to return to the workforce. The jump has helped explain a boost in the state’s labor force participation rate, which has risen steadily since February 2023.

Now, 62.2 percent of working-age adults are in the labor force — either holding jobs or looking for one. The state’s rate is no longer the worst in the Great Lakes region (thanks, Ohio) and it is the closest it’s been to the national rate (62.8%) since June 2020. 

Roughly 209,000 more people were in the labor force in December, at just over 5 million,  compared to January. The unemployment rate in December was 4.3 percent.

 

Free community college tuition: Incomplete

The goal: Whitmer asked lawmakers to help her expand her Michigan Reconnect program for tuition-free community college or skills training school by allowing residents as young as 21-years-old to qualify, down from the current 25-years-old minimum.

What happened: 

The Legislature approved a temporary expansion of Michigan Reconnect to students as young as 21 using $70 million of federal pandemic funds. Students aged 21 to 24 must apply to the Michigan program by Nov. 15

Read more:

Clean energy: Yes 

The goal: Whitmer said in her last State of the State speech that “it is our shared duty to face climate change head-on and protect our land and water.” She said the state should become “a hub of clean energy production” while creating jobs and lowering costs of clean energy. 

What happened: The Democratic-led Legislature delivered to Whitmer bills that will require utilities to deliver 100 percent clean energy by 2040. Companion legislation will let state regulators override local decisions about where to allow large-scale wind and solar arrays. 

truck going by wind mills
Bitter debates over large-scale wind and solar developments have cropped up in rural communities throughout Michigan and across the country. (Bridge file photo)

Democrats hailed the legislation as a game-changer in the fight against climate change, but Republicans argued the new policies will raise energy rates for consumers and blasted the majority for trampling on the right of local communities to block developments they don’t want.

Last week, Michigan’s Board of State Canvassers gave opponents of the freshly-inked solar siting law the go-ahead to move forward with a proposed ballot initiative to repeal it. 

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