A day before her State of the State address, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer came to Livingston County Tuesday to take part in a roundtable discussion held at The Brighton Light House conference center.
Moderated by Debbie Mikula of Howell, who serves as the Executive Director of the Michigan Library Association, the panel of residents included retired teachers and a retired police officer, who talked about various issues ranging from inflation to education.
“We’ll have an authentic and civil conversation amongst those sitting at this table, said Mikula, adding “And that’s often sadly missing in today’s conversations. Governor Whitmer is here to listen.”
Gov. Whitmer kicked off the gathering by noting that her State of the State address will acknowledge what she called the “unprecedented challenges” facing Michigan families.
“Right now, we know that with inflation and with the pandemic, it’s been tough for a lot of people just simply to do the fundamentals, right? Put the food down on the table, to fill up the gas tank, to get the groceries.”
She said she planned to focus on three different examples of Michiganders; workers, retirees and recent graduates. Retirees and new graduates would be a focus for providing financial relief, whether it’s through repealing the pension tax signed by former-Gov. Rick Snyder or helping new graduates find good paying jobs and selecting a “path to skills that won’t put them into debt for decades.”
The panel then began their discussion with inflation as the first topic .
Shane Dennis of Howell retired last year after serving 25 years with the City of Ann Arbor Police Department, but has continued to work as a private security guard to supplement his pension.
“As far as inflation, gas is one of the big things for me because I have a second job,” said Dennis. “I actually commute 40 miles each direction to my job. And now that the gas is going back up again, part of my paycheck is going towards that instead of the essentials.”
But Dennis said the pension tax was also a financial strain he hadn’t necessarily anticipated.
“I mean we all got into our line of work not to become rich, but knowing we were going to be taken care of and not have to pay (pension) taxes,” he said. “But then we get told, ‘Oh by the way, you are going to be paying tax on your pension.’ So any little bit is going to help us, especially now with the economy the way it is and inflation.”
Jenny Jager of Howell works as an online instructor for a trade school, and also occasionally as a substitute teacher in public schools.
“I have a 10 year old daughter, and I’m a breast cancer survivor,” said the single mom. “The price of groceries is outrageous. A carton of eggs was $7 yesterday, and in many places it’s higher. It’s just very hard when you are used to being able to budget on a certain amount for groceries and you have to double or triple that in the month. There’s other things that we can’t do because of that.”
When the conversation moved to education, Mikula noted a shortage of trained and qualified educators in Michigan, calling it a “big challenge and a struggle” to retain excellent teachers.
Dane Morris, a retired Hartland teacher, was quick to offer his take on why education positions were becoming harder to fill, saying money was not the only factor.
“I think really the thing that is driving more people out of the profession is this whole lack of respect,” he said. “It’s not even necessarily the salary. We don’t become teachers because we want to get rich. But that’s the biggest issue I see is just the lack of respect for us as professionals, and then the Republicans feel that anybody can be a teacher these days, which is the craziest damn thing that you can think of.”
Morris, who ran in 2012 as a Democrat for the Livingston County Board of Commissioners, said the best illustration of that were the recent school board elections.
“Livingston County is a perfect example,” noted Morris. “We recently elected a lot of new school board members who are anti-school. I don’t know any other way to put it. The slates that ran out here are just not going to be supportive of public education. So I think that’s the biggest problem that we see. There are school board members who actually believe, and it just astounds me, that there are litter boxes in the bathrooms. That’s what we’re dealing with.”
Whitmer made a point to interject at that point.
“And there are no litter boxes,” she said. “I just wanted to say that because I think people believe that.”
At the close of the session, Whitmer thanked participants for their time and points of view.
“I hope that when you see the State of the State, or the coverage of it, you see that this conversation has informed the work that we’re doing,” she said. “But also when I introduce the budget two weeks later. Like your household budgets, right? You spend money on the things that are fundamental and that are important and that’s how we write the state budget as well. So I appreciate you.”
Afterwards, the Governor gathered with reporters for a few minutes of questions and was asked why she had chosen Brighton for the roundtable.
“Livingston County is one of 83 phenomenal counties in the State of Michigan,” she said. “And everyone matters to me. And that’s why showing up, listening, trying to find common ground will always be how I operate. It’s how I always have. And you know, stopping here in Brighton and having a round table discussion is as important as stopping in Marquette, Michigan or in Gaylord, Michigan, and all of which are communities I spend time in regularly and I’m grateful for.”
With recent plans for solar power farms drawing opposition from residents in Conway, Cohoctah and Marion townships, GIGO News asked Gov. Whitmer has she balanced that kind of opposition with the goals laid out in her MI Climate Action Plan, which call for reducing greenhouse gas emissions “28% below 2005 levels by 2025 and 52% by 2030 in order to achieve economy-wide carbon neutrality by 2050.”
Among the key strategies laid out in the plan are to “Assist clean energy developers and communities in adopting best practices for siting renewable energy systems.”
“You know, it’s not just about the climate action plan, although that’s very important as we think about how climate is changing, what it means for our daily lives,” said Whitmer. “From swamped highways to tornadoes, touching down in Gaylord, which has never happened before, to fires even in the Upper Peninsula. So we have to do our part to meet the moment. All that being said, if we want to land investment and good paying jobs, the competitions are requiring green energy. And so a state that doesn’t embrace and move forward and ensure that there are clean energy sources is a state that’s going to miss out on job opportunities. And at the end of the day, if you can’t put food on the table and you don’t have industry that grows populations and supports small businesses and schools and the local barber, none of the rest of it matters. And that’s why I think it’s important to link our climate work with the future of advanced manufacturing. And if we’re going to lead, we’ve got to do it all.”
When asked whether her speech Thursday would include on proposed legislation surrounding LGBTQ+ rights and gun safety, Whitmer noted those issues have always been a priority.
“I think all of my States of the State called on our state to come into this moment and give the LGBTQ community full protections under the law,” she said. “Dana Nessel thankfully argued and won a case this past summer, but we still need to codify it. And so I want to get that done. I think it’s important for our economy, it’s important for Michiganders and our future. And as far as some common sense gun safety, you know I talked about that all throughout the campaign. I’ve listened to Oxford families, I’ve listened to communities that suffer through too much gun violence, and we know that there’s some common sense things we can do that will make a difference. And I think we have a duty to do it.”