Whitmer says roads, education in crisis; touts tuition plan

Photo from WILX
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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.

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 ensure it "is one where our kids stay and families thrive."

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 during a 55-minute speech to the Republican-led Legislature in which 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.

Whitmer, who will unveil a road-funding plan in her March budget presentation to lawmakers, also excoriated the state of K-12 schools while saying it is not the fault of teachers. 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.

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

She 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 to "upskill" and land in-demand jobs.

"It will make Michigan the first Midwestern state to guarantee community college for all," Whitmer said.

She said the vast majority of jobs require some form of postsecondary education, whether it is a degree or a skills certification.

The cost of Whitmer's proposals is unclear. It will be outlined in her March 5 budget proposal, said budget director Chris Kolb.

Also Tuesday, Whitmer renewed her support for expanding the state's civil rights law to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity — which is unlikely to advance in the GOP-controlled Legislature. She also said Michigan should become the 17th state to ban driving while using a hand-held phone. Texting and driving is a civil infraction under a 2010 law, but police and safety advocates have said a blanket ban should be considered with exceptions for hands-free technology except in a 911 emergency.

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