In a speech this week, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer detailed her legislative agenda for the rest of 2023—including plans for paid family and medical leave, new clean energy standards, expanded health care, and even more reproductive freedom.
LANSING—Michiganders are known for their kindness and humility, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said. But despite eight straight months of legislative progress under total Democratic control in Lansing, Michiganders still aren’t always the best at telling the story of those accomplishments.
That ends today, she said.
“Today we go from just believing in Michigan to bragging about Michigan,” Whitmer said Wednesday during a speech to lawmakers and other state officials at the Lansing Shuffleboard and Social Club. “We have it all. Let’s tell that story. Because we’re Michiganders, damn it. There’s simply nothing better. We have a lot to do and only a few months before the new year.”
Michigan’s governor typically gives an annual “State of the State” address in January, where he or she outlines legislative priorities for the year ahead. But because Democratic lawmakers in control of both chambers of the state Legislature have already ticked through nearly all of their initial priorities, this week’s speech essentially outlined the game plan for the rest of the year.
“Our plans are ambitious, but they are achievable,” Whitmer said. “I know that Michiganders love our state and we have been through a lot, especially over the last 40 years. We have made strides to reverse those trends by delivering on issues that make a real difference in people’s lives. We have made progress. Our list of accomplishments, our growing, diversifying economy, and our strong financial position prove that what we are doing is working. That feeling you’re seeing in every region of our state? It’s hope. Michiganders believe in Michigan.”
Here’s an overview of Whitmer’s top priorities for legislative action later this year:
Paid Family & Medical Leave
When lawmakers return to Lansing from their summer break in September, Whitmer said that she wants them to pass legislation that would create a new paid family and medical leave program that operates much like the state’s unemployment system and offers the ability for all Michiganders to take time away from work to care for family members or their newborn babies.
For Whitmer, the issue is personal.
“When I had my first daughter, I was also caring for my mom, who was dying of brain cancer. I was sandwiched between them,” Whitmer said. “I had my first child during my first legislative term. … Even with help, raising a child, caring for yourself, and juggling your work is hard.”
While some of Michigan’s larger companies (including the state government itself) offer flexible paid leave packages for employees, it can often be unaffordable for the state’s smaller businesses. State officials estimate that nearly 80% of workers in Michigan currently don’t have access to any paid family and medical leave at all—and they deserve better, Whitmer said.
“It helps workers be there for their families. It gives you breathing room to get better when you’re sick, bond with your baby, or care for a family member,” she said. “Enacting paid leave levels the playing field, helping small businesses attract and retain workers.”
In May, state Sen. Erika Geiss introduced legislation that would allow Michiganders to take up to 15 weeks of leave in a year for the birth of a child, a family member’s health condition, or their own serious health issue. Under that bill, Michiganders would reportedly be provided with a percentage of their usual pay through a government-administered payroll contribution program.
Geiss told The ‘Gander that Whitmer was specifically referencing her legislation when she called for the paid leave on Wednesday—labeling the plan as “ambitious” yet “manageable.”
“Everyone, at some point, is going to need time to care for themselves or a loved one—so this is critical,” Geiss said. “If the federal government isn’t going to do it, it’s going to be up to the states to get it done. Nobody should have to choose between keeping a roof over their head, feeding their households, and paying their utilities while simultaneously navigating a health challenge.”
Whitmer said the legislation is a priority for all workers—but especially for women, who make up half of the state’s workforce and often still bear the brunt of caretaking responsibilities at home. Because surveys have also shown that paid leave is one of the top priorities for relocating families, Whitmer said the legislation will also help boost the state’s population and economy.
“We deserve better,” Whitmer said. “No one should have to choose between being there for their family and a paycheck. Paid family and medical leave is a pro-family, pro-small business policy.”
If the bills are passed into law this year, proponents say Michigan would reportedly become a national leader in paid family leave—and only one of about a dozen states to offer the benefit.
Whitmer also called on lawmakers to further protect reproductive rights in Michigan as neighboring states continue to tighten restrictions on abortion care. Voters last year approved a ballot measure that codified abortion rights into the state Constitution, but Whitmer said there’s still more work to be done.
“There are still other bad laws that put politically motivated, medically unnecessary restrictions on abortion,” Whitmer said. “This forces patients to drive hundreds of miles for care or mandate that they receive biased, inaccurate information about their health. With a US Supreme Court stripping away basic rights, we must be proactive about repealing these antiquated state laws.”
The soon-to-be-reintroduced “Reproductive Health Act” aims to repeal several targeted restrictions on abortion providers—otherwise known as TRAP laws—that create unnecessary restrictions on reproductive health care, Whitmer said. Among them: Old state laws dealing with parental consent; mandatory waiting periods; insurance coverage restrictions; and state licensing requirements that have limited access to reproductive health care across Michigan.
Speaker Pro Tempore Laurie Pohutsky (D-Livonia) plans to introduce the legislation this fall. During a recent interview with The ‘Gander, she said that the right to reproductive freedom alone doesn’t mean much if it doesn’t also include meaningful access for all Michiganders.
“If we have a constitutional right to reproductive freedom, but it’s not accessible for everyone, then it’s not actually a right,” she said. “Folks found a way to chip away at Roe v. Wade, and they’re going to do the same thing with our constitutional right that we have here in Michigan. We need to be proactive and eliminate some of the roadblocks that have already been put up.”
Specifically, the legislation aims to remove the mandatory 24-hour waiting period for patients and strike the requirement in state law that minors get their parents’ (or a judge’s) permission before receiving abortion care.
“We’ve heard horror stories about incest and parents who won’t give permission, but for any variety of reasons, a minor may not feel comfortable talking with their parents,” Pohutsky said. “The goal is obviously for everyone to have a supportive parent, but that isn’t always the case.”
The 24-hour waiting periods are also especially inconvenient for those who might not have realized the requirement exists, and may have already driven hundreds of miles.
“That means they’re taking another day off work, traveling again, or getting another hotel room. That’s a really devastating barrier for some folks,” Ashlea Phenicie, interim vice president of public policy at Planned Parenthood of Michigan, said in a recent interview with The ‘Gander.
Additionally, Pohutsky’s legislation would eliminate state licensing requirements that currently require all clinics that provide abortion care to be licensed as freestanding medical centers. That status prescribes a raft of sometimes unnecessary (and cost prohibitive) state rules that have effectively prevented new clinics from opening their doors in underserved areas of the state.
Pohutsky told The ‘Gander that she also wants to expand insurance coverage for abortion care—namely by enabling Affordable Care Act plans to cover reproductive care without requiring the purchase of a separate insurance rider, often referred to as “rape insurance.”
“I’m thrilled that the Governor supported the passage of the Reproductive Health Act,” Pohutsky said after the speech. “Passing the Reproductive Health Act will make sure that the right to reproductive freedom is truly a right, not just a luxury available to those who can access it.”
Health Care Protections
Whitmer also encouraged lawmakers to pass legislation that would proactively protect several key provisions included in the Affordable Care Act, including one that requires insurers to cover preventive services as the federal health law continues to face legal challenges in federal court.
“Every Michigander deserves quality, affordable care,” Whitmer said.
Specifically, Whitmer wants four cost-saving Obamacare measures codified into state law—including protections to prevent those with pre-existing conditions from paying higher costs; allowances to enable children to remain on their parents’ insurance until they’re 26; a ban on annual or lifetime coverage caps; and requirements that insurers cover more health care essentials, like ambulance services, maternity care, mental health treatment, and birth control.
“The Affordable Care Act is one of the most consequential pieces of legislation I have seen passed in my lifetime,” said state Sen. Kevin Hertel (D-St.Clair Shores). “While ongoing threats to the protections provided continue in federal court, I am grateful to play a part in ensuring Michigan residents will never have to worry about their ability to access affordable coverage.”
Whitmer also called for the creation of an independent, nonpartisan “Prescription Drug Affordability Board” that will be tasked with using “evidence-based research” to drive down the cost of prescription drugs in Michigan. She said the board will also “hold bad actors accountable for irrationally skyrocketing prices” while also working to find new treatments and cures.
Saving the Planet
Whitmer’s legislative roadmap also focused on the “health of the planet”—and the need for additional legislation to curb climate change and protect natural resources across Michigan. The biggest-ticket item: Moving Michigan to a 100% clean energy standard by no later than 2050.
“This means all the energy we produce (by 2050) will be from wind, solar, or other common-sense sources,” Whitmer said. “It means clean air for our kids to breathe and safe water for them to drink. And it means protecting our lakes for generations to come.”
And to ensure Michigan stays on track, Whitmer called on lawmakers to pass more bills to protect clean air and water, while also creating more jobs and expanding energy production.
“We can protect our natural resources and produce cheaper energy. We can bring supply chains home and lower costs for families,” Whitmer said. “And let’s work together to improve energy efficiency programs. The cleanest, cheapest form of energy is energy you don’t use.”
Whitmer called on lawmakers to find new ways to lower utility costs for families—namely by improving energy efficiency and waste reduction programs to drive down costs, as well as helping provide more resources for Michiganders to upgrade their homes and businesses.
She also said it should be much easier to build new wind and solar projects in Michigan, encouraging lawmakers to pass legislation to permit more clean energy projects statewide.
State Rep. Donavan McKinney (D-Detroit) was among several Democratic lawmakers who introduced legislation to promote solar energy production in Michigan earlier this year. The package of legislation is expected to resurface this fall after state lawmakers return to Lansing.
“The country is already rapidly moving toward an economy powered by clean, low-cost energy, but now we need systems in place to make sure that nobody is left behind in this transition,” he said. “Passing the MI Power for All plan will be a huge step forward in advancing renewable energy solutions that will bring everyone equitable access to a clean and sustainable future.”
Whitmer said the adoption of more environmentally friendly energy production policies in Michigan will create 160,000 jobs and save families about $5.5 billion in household energy costs by 2050—as well as allow the state to capture about $14.7 billion in federal clean energy funds.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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