One year later: What happens when voters put Democrats in charge of a state government?

Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer celebrate during an election night watch party at MotorCity Casino Hotel on Nov. 9, 2022. (Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

By Kyle Kaminski

December 18, 2023

Democratic lawmakers in the state Legislature have been keeping busy since Michigan voters elected them to take charge of the state government for the first time in decades.

MICHIGAN—Last November, Michiganders re-elected Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to a second term and put Democratic majorities in charge of both the state House of Representatives and Senate—marking a historic trifecta that hasn’t been seen in Michigan since the early 80s.

And over the last year, a lot has changed.

Since January, Whitmer has signed nearly 300 bills into law, penned 10 executive orders, and ushered in what many view as a new era for Michigan’s government in which lawmakers pass legislation that answers directly to the people and addresses their most pressing needs.

Whitmer outlined Michigan’s new political landscape in a recent NBC News interview: “When you listen to the people, when you’re bold, when you stay in the fight, you can win,” she said.

Haven’t kept up with the headlines?

Here’s a breakdown of what you may have missed over the last year:

Tax Relief

Two tax reforms signed into law this year are poised to put $1.6 billion back into Michiganders’ pockets—and the legislation couldn’t have had a more appropriate name: “Lowering MI Costs.” The primary goal, Whitmer has said, is to help Michiganders pay bills and put food on the table.

All told, more than 700,000 Michigan families will receive tax rebate checks for about $550.

Legislation to roll back the retirement tax is also set to take effect in February—and it’s expected to save 500,000 households an average of $1,000 a year, according to state estimates.

Additionally, quintupling the state’s Working Families Tax Credit to 30% of the federal Earned Income Tax Credit is set to save thousands more Michiganders about $3,150 next tax season.

Economic Growth—and More Jobs

Since January, Whitmer has announced hundreds of millions of dollars in state economic development grants and other tax incentives that have helped entice dozens of big-name companies (like Ford and Home Depot) to plant roots or expand their operations in Michigan.

The governor now labels the last few years as the “best economic recovery in Michigan history,” with the state now tracking its lowest unemployment rate in 23 years, and a workforce that is growing faster than just about everywhere else in the country, according to recent reports.

The rapid growth this year was also enough to make Michigan the top state in the nation for electric vehicle and battery investments and energy job growth, as well as the future home of what Newsweek has labeled as America’s “next Silicon Valley” for mobility innovations.

State officials have credited Michigan’s rapid economic growth, in part, to Whitmer’s new “Make it in Michigan” economic development strategy, which her administration unveiled this summer and has since translated into legislative action to lure more developments into Michigan.

Billions of dollars in federal funding from President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan Act and Inflation Reduction Act have also been put to work in Michigan this year—which has resulted in millions of dollars flowing to local communities, nonprofit organizations, and small businesses.

Reproductive Freedom

An unenforceable abortion ban from 1931 is set to be erased from state law after Whitmer signed legislation to repeal the archaic statute in April. The new law effectively guarantees  reproductive freedoms for Michiganders after 57% of  voters last year approved Proposal 3—a citizen-led ballot initiative enshrining reproductive rights in the state constitution. 

In doing so, Michigan officially became the 10th state to protect reproductive freedoms and ensure its residents have access to safe, legal abortion after Roe v. Wade was overturned.

And with the signing of the Reproductive Health Act, Michigan is also set to repeal several “medically unnecessary” restrictions on abortion providers next year—all with the overarching goal of protecting and expanding access to affordable care for more Michiganders statewide.

That includes repealing Michigan’s so-called “rape insurance” law that has banned insurance companies from offering coverage for abortion without forcing women to buy a separate rider.

Clean Energy

Long-awaited legislation signed into law by Whitmer last month is set to create new clean energy standards for electricity providers in Michigan, requiring them to source most—and eventually all—of their energy through renewable sources over the next 17 years.

In addition to helping tackle the climate change crisis and protect the environment, Democratic lawmakers said the bills would also create new energy efficiency programs that will translate to savings for Michiganders who are frustrated with the ever-rising cost of their energy bills.

Public Schools

This year, Democratic lawmakers passed (and Whitmer signed) a $82 billion budget that included a historic $24 billion investment in Michigan’s public schools—including a 5% increase in per-pupil funding for public school districts and an extra $200 million for at-risk students.

The latest budget also included $255 million to fund a universal pre-K proposal that would provide free preschool, hire more teachers, and fund transportation for the state’s 5,600 4-year-olds. The budget also set aside $160 million to provide free breakfast and lunch for all students, making Michigan the fourth state to do so. The new free school meals program is expected to save the average family $850 a year.

In March, Whitmer also signed a bill to repeal a controversial state law that for years has punished Michigan students who fall behind more than one grade level in reading and writing by forcing them to repeat the third grade. And last month, she signed legislation to make long-sought changes to the way teachers are evaluated based on student test scores.

Whitmer also signed three bills into law in October known as the “Filter First Bills,” which make Michigan the first state in the nation to require schools and child care centers to install water filters and conduct routine testing for potential lead contamination in their drinking water.

And this month, Whitmer signed legislation that will require (and fund) oral health screenings for all incoming kindergarten and first grade students in Michigan within six months of their first day of school. Democratic lawmakers said the idea is centered on ensuring students are ready to focus on school throughout the day, rather than be distracted by a toothache or dental issue.

More than 25,000 college students across Michigan have also now taken advantage of a statewide scholarship program that was first unveiled last year by Whitmer’s administration, which saved them each an average of more than $2,000 on their tuition earlier this fall.

Workers’ Rights

Michigan, long known as a mainstay of organized labor, this year became the first state in decades to restore workers’ rights after Democrats repealed an anti-union law known as “right-to-work” that was passed over a decade ago by a Republican-controlled Legislature.

The state’s “right-to-work” law had allowed those in unionized workplaces to opt out of paying union dues and fees, which effectively deprived unions of funds and weakened their ability to fund unionization efforts and negotiate strong contracts. The law’s repeal was celebrated across Michigan as a major victory for organized labor—especially after union membership had reached an all-time low last year.

Union leaders have said the change strengthened their bargaining power against corporations and will lead to better pay and benefits for workers—much like the six-week strike did for United Auto Workers union members who reached tentative contracts with the Detroit Three this year.

Civil Rights

This year, Whitmer signed a bill to expand the state’s civil rights law to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, or expression—marking a formal end to a decades-long battle to cement civil rights protections in Michigan for the LGBTQ community.

Michigan’s civil rights act already prohibited discrimination in employment, housing, and public services based on religion, race, color, national origin, age, sex, height, weight, familial status, or marital status. The new amendments were designed to curb discrimination for the nearly two-thirds of LGBTQ individuals who report experiencing discrimination in their everyday lives.

Over the summer, Democratic lawmakers took those protections a step further with legislation to protect workers from employment discrimination if they had an abortion. In May, Whitmer also signed Democratic-led bills that effectively banned mental health providers in Michigan from offering any therapy that attempts to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of children.

Gun Violence and Crime Prevention

In the wake of a deadly mass shooting this year at Michigan State University, Democratic lawmakers have also passed (and Whitmer has signed into law) several gun safety bills—including legislation that will create new requirements for universal background checks before guns can be purchased in Michigan and added safe storage requirements.

Beginning in February, additional legislation signed into law by Whitmer will also prohibit those convicted of domestic violence from owning or possessing a firearm for eight years. Statistics show nearly half of all women murdered in the United States were killed by a current or former intimate partner, and because domestic violence almost always escalates in the severity of abuse, Democratic lawmakers believe the legislation will inevitably save more lives.

In the meantime, Whitmer’s latest state budget included an extra $500 million for public safety programs across Michigan—like ongoing violence intervention initiatives to help address the root cause of violence, and more dedicated resources to train and retain local first responders.

Whitmer’s renewed focus on curbing crime is also paying dividends for Michigan. Authorities said more than 500 illegal guns (and plenty of drugs and ammo) have been taken off the streets as part of Whitmer’s “Operation Safe Neighborhoods” plan to curb rising rates of gun violence.

Infrastructure

Whitmer’s administration, as promised, has been focused on “fixing the damn roads”—as well as the state’s bridges, pipes, housing, and all other kinds of infrastructure—throughout 2023.

By the end of this year, state officials said they will have fixed, repaired, or replaced more than 20,000 lane miles of road and 1,400 bridges since Whitmer took office in 2018. Those projects have not led to a direct tax increase, and they’ve also directly supported more than 90,000 jobs.

The latest $82 billion state budget also invested hundreds of millions of dollars in other infrastructure projects—including nearly $600 million for clean water infrastructure, building out the high-speed charging network needed to support the transition to electric vehicles, and other investments designed to promote the expansion of high-speed internet across the state

Voting Rights

Other state legislation passed and signed into law this year is set to boost voter registration opportunities, improve efficiencies on Election Day, protect poll workers, and ensure that all Michiganders have equal access to the ballot box ahead of the next general election in 2024.

Most of the laws will take effect in February—including allowing 16-year-olds to pre-register to vote before they can legally vote. The laws will also automatically register Michigan residents to vote when released from prison, making Michigan the first state in the US to pass such a law.

The package of laws also includes reforms that aim to curb the deceptive use of artificial intelligence, manipulated media, and so-called “deepfakes” in political advertisements—namely by requiring clear labels on ads that are created using some type of artificial intelligence.

Several other reforms were passed this year following the passage of Proposal 2 last November, which locked certain voting rights into the state constitution—all of which centered on reducing barriers between voters and their ability to cast a ballot. 

In July, Michigan lawmakers passed legislation that will require at least nine days of early in-person voting beginning with the 2024 presidential election. Whitmer also signed legislation to criminalize acts of intimidation against poll workers and other election officials on Election Day.

READ MORE: Michigan Dems rally to support veterans all year long

For the latest Michigan news, follow The ‘Gander on Twitter.

Follow Political Correspondent Kyle Kaminski here.

Author

  • Kyle Kaminski

    Kyle Kaminski is an award-winning investigative journalist with more than a decade of experience covering news across Michigan. Prior to joining The ‘Gander, Kyle worked as the managing editor at City Pulse in Lansing and as a reporter for the Traverse City Record-Eagle.

Politics

Local News

Related Stories
Share This