Whitmer's 2024 State of the State: Calls for free community college, better housing

Governor Gretchen Whitmer gave her sixth State of the State address from the Michigan House Chambers Wednesday night, laying out her 2024 agenda.

Whitmer highlighted policies implemented by Democrats in 2023, their first year with full control of the agenda in over four decades. Democrats worked to repeal a union-restricting law known as "right-to-work," overhaul gun laws in the state, and further protect both LGBTQ+ and abortion rights.

Among her priorities, Whitmer emphasized she will continue investing in education, from preschool to college.

"When I introduce my next budget, we're going to keep feeding students and lowering grocery bills for families," the governor said. "We know education in Michigan needs more support and more work and we want student outcomes to exceed our expectations. We need to better prepare students for success after they graduate, whether they go right into the workforce or enter community college, trade school, or a four-year university."

She urged state lawmakers to pass legislation that would provide free community college tuition for all high school graduates.

"In our next budget, let's make the first two years of community college in Michigan tuition free for every high school graduate," Whitmer said.

The governor indicated a main problem for Michiganders right now is cost, and she considers housing as the largest expense – with affordability a top concern for younger adults. 

Whitmer’s speech highlighted an investment of over a billion dollars to build or rehabilitate housing in the state, saying they planned to "build, baby, build." She also called on lawmakers to pass a tax credit of up to $5,000 for caregiving expenses including counseling, transportation, and nursing or respite services.

"These are statewide challenges," Whitmer said. "In Traverse City, school districts need housing for teachers who have nowhere else to live. On the west side and in the UP, there just aren't enough homes for growing families. And I know Detroiters see higher rates when they resign. In other words, the rent is too damn high, and we don't have enough damn housing."

Much of the work highlighted in Whitmer’s speech aligned with the key issues that national Democrats are stressing ahead of the November election. Voter sentiment toward the party’s agenda in Michigan could prove vital for an upcoming presidential election that could hinge on the battleground state’s results.

"I cannot solve global inflation alone. No one person can — not even the President," said Whitmer, who is the co-chair of President Joe Biden’s reelection campaign. The governor underscored Biden’s policies multiple times in her speech, saying they had driven a "manufacturing renaissance" in Michigan.

Last year, much of what Whitmer wanted in her State of the State speech — including tax cuts and the repeal of "right-to-work" — was passed by a Legislature controlled entirely by Democrats.

This year could prove more difficult with the state House membership deadlocked at 54-54 until at least April. Two Democratic representatives left their seats in November after winning mayoral races and special elections will be held in the two heavily Democratic districts on April 16.

State lawmakers react to Whitmer's State of the State address

Republican leaders criticized Whitmer before and after her speech for what they said has been five years without substantive improvements in education, infrastructure or economic development in the state. 

Rep. Matt Hall, the House minority leader, described Whitmer’s agenda as "short-term ideas that are designed to generate a lot of press and attention toward perhaps national political ambitions."

Senate Republican Leader Aric Nesbitt released a video statement shortly after Whitmer's address, saying she painted a picture that is "at odds with the reality most Michigan families are facing."

"Here's the reality of where we, as a state, stand five years into the Whitmer administration and three years in the Biden administration – Michigan fourth graders ranked 43rd in reading, only three in 10 fourth graders in our state are proficient in math, our high school graduation rate is 43rd nationally and our average SAT scores are the longest on record," Nesbitt said. "Our unemployment rate is 48th in the nation, our median household income is 37th, and for most families, if they've seen any increase in pay – it's been wiped out by inflation."

"This governor, in five years, has gone from 57 billion to over $80 billion. So anytime she tells you she's going to give you something, please be advised, she'll be taking something," said Republican State Sen. Ruth Johnson. "It doesn't come out of thin air."

On the other hand, State House Speaker Joe Tate said what Whitmer proposed is what the Democratic party is building on.

"I think continuing to put people first is something that we want to do," Tate said, praising the bills that were signed and implemented in 2023.

Tate is also hopeful that the House will continue to work together despite the even split, he said.

"We've already laid a foundation in terms of what we've been able to do," Tate said. "The majority of the bills that we passed out of the House have been bipartisan. So I think that leads us into those opportunities."

Many of the proposals, including the free community college plan and Whitmer’s call for free pre-K for 4-year olds by the end of the year, will require funding in the upcoming state budget.

It remains to be seen how soon, if at all, Whitmer’s initiatives will be brought before state lawmakers. Several key proposals that Whitmer called for last year, including paid family and medical leave, have yet to receive approval from lawmakers and remained absent from her speech Wednesday.

Watch the full 2024 State of the State address here:

Ap News contributed to this report.