On Jan. 1, Democrat Gretchen Whitmer will take the oath of office to become the 49th governor of Michigan, succeeding Republican Rick Snyder, who was term-limited after eight years in office. Whitmer spoke with MiBiz Editor Joe Boomgaard earlier this week as the contentious lame-duck legislative session came to a close.
One of the things that we’ve been hearing from the business executives we’ve talked to for our annual Crystal Ball edition is just that there’s a level of uncertainty in Lansing with the changeover in leadership. If there’s one thing that businesses hate, it’s uncertainty. What advice would you offer them as to what kind of governor you’ll be and your leadership style?
There are some good things that are happening here in Michigan. There are some glaring issues we’ve got to tackle as well. I am not the person currently in the White House. I’m not out to undo everything a predecessor did, just because they did it. I am a very thoughtful person, who is married to a small business owner, a person who wants to make sure that we are competitive and that the world knows we’re open for business, but also that we’re a place where small business can thrive.
I think that some preconceived notions about parties and party members from the past, we need to put those aside and really work together to make sure that we’re making educated decisions that are forward focused and inclusive. I think when we do that, we might not agree on everything, but we’re going to find we have a lot more common ground than we expect.
Business leaders cite your legislative experience as being a differentiator compared to the past couple of governors in Michigan. How does that serve you when it comes time to broker deals with a GOP-controlled legislature?
I think it’s important. The legislature, they are not employees of the governor. They’re a co-equal branch of government. While they have smaller constituencies, and the governor represents the whole state, they have to be viewed as a co-equal branch of government.
Legislators have to take tough votes every day, all day long. They deserve the respect for doing that, but also the ability to weigh in and work together. Now it doesn’t mean we’ll agree on everything. I’m going to use my veto pen when I think it’s the right thing to do. I’ll work around them when they are impossible to work with. But I think if we start off from a place where we really do start having quadrant meetings, where the leaders of the four caucuses and I sit down, in a regular way, that we’re going to find … we’ve got more common ground than we expect.
You never know that if you’re not talking to one another. That’s why I think, what’s going to be my M.O. is to take that time to make it a priority, as I said, and meet and try to work things out with these legislative leaders.
Where do you see common ground emerging between you and some of the new leaders in the state Legislature?
I’m very mindful of the fact that I just won a historic election. More people turned out. It was a big win, and we pulled a lot of people over the finish line with me. But I do have a Republican House and Senate to work with.
It was interesting. I was meeting with the incoming Speaker of the House, and he pointed out that some of his members’ districts I won by double-digits. His members got re-elected, so people voted for individuals, and they voted for agendas. Those agendas, where they overlapped on things like infrastructure, on things like the skills gap, I know that these are issues business cares about. Their potholes are not Republican or Democratic. They’re ripping up all of our cars and endangering us and making us less competitive. We should be able to find our common ground around things like that.
During the campaign, you mentioned that you wanted to unleash the power of the Michigan Economic Development Corp. Can you offer some color around what you meant by that, and what that might look like in practice?
I think there’s the resources there to go on a 52-week jobs blitz, to throw shovels in the ground in different parts of the state, and make the kind of thoughtful economic development investments that really give us results, give us employment opportunities, or rehabilitate a historic building or a brownfield. There are things that we can do, and get more aggressive about doing. It’s always got to be legitimate. It’s always got to be transparent, and accountable to the public. But I think that there are a lot of things that we can do with the monies. We’re not going to just pack up all of our economic development tools, we’re going to put them to work.
Are you considering more programs specifically, or would you use the tools that are in place right now?
I think using the tools that are in place. But when the governor came in, he got rid of the historic building credits. He didn’t embrace the brownfield redevelopment credits. … They serve an important public purpose, putting unusable property back into use, or keeping a historic building in a lot of our downtowns that need revitalization, making that a priority. Those are two obvious examples, in my mind, of ways that the public benefits from some of this economic development policy.
You received broad support from the business community for ‘fixing the damn roads.’ What do you think it’s going to take to get the revenue needed to make that plan work? What are the chances that the GOP-led legislature will go along with that?
I think the chances are high. We’re putting together the final pieces of our plan that will be rolled out early next year. But, like I said, there are school buses full of kids that are going over bridges that have hundreds of temporary supports holding them up.
I met a woman on the campaign trail who had an aneurysm and was being rushed to the hospital — life and death every minute — and yet the ambulance thought it was more prudent to take a longer route than the shorter one that had so many potholes in it.
The state of our infrastructure really is endangering our people every day, but it’s also making us less competitive. You can’t tell the world we’re going to be at the center of mobility if we’ve got roads that look like they’re turning back to gravel, roads that aren’t supported by cutting-edge technology so that autonomous vehicles can traverse our roadways. This is an area that every one of us is paying a price. I’m hoping it doesn’t have to be catastrophic before we see real movement on my plan to actually fix it. This is the kind of investment that is not sexy, but my goodness, it improves bottom lines for business and safety for our families.
In a recent interview with Crain’s Detroit Business, you mentioned you were considering breaking up the Department of Health and Human Services. Are there other areas of state government or other initiatives from the last eight years that you think to need to be rolled back, tweaked or evolved? What’s your hit list of priorities?
This transition period is 55 days long, which is an extremely short amount of time to transition the state government, which is a $56 billion organization with 50,000 employees, and 10 million people counting on us to do it well. We’re working at a very quick pace — thoughtful, but speedy — because I’ve got to announce a cabinet, make sure that I’ve got directors in each of these departments that will do a great job, that is representative, and will carry forward my agenda.
I’ve got to make sure that I build my executive office. I’m fending off a legislative power grab right now, and it’s from them trying to weaken the power of the executive office. We’re doing an incredible amount of work right now.
But one of the things that was a priority for us was we sent in landing teams into each of the departments to ask questions, to understand what’s working, and to understand what’s not working, so that we’ve got a goal and set up priorities and an agenda where there’s real strategy behind it, walking in on day one, for each of these departments. I’m incredibly confident in that work that they’ve done. I’ve seen it, and we’re going to execute on day one.
Now, in the executive office, I’ve got the authority to rename, to change, to reorganize state government, and there will be some of that. I don’t think that there’ll be anything that is so dramatic it turns everything upside down, but we are going to make some changes to make government make more sense for people.
Do you see any of the existing cabinet members staying on in your cabinet as well, or are you going to look to bring in an entirely new slate of people?
It’s a possibility. … We’ll have some announcements between now and the end of the year, but nothing that I’m going to announce right now.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: Whitmer this morning named several cabinet and executive office members, according to a statement.]
One of your campaign pledges focused on bringing back transparency in Michigan government. Do you think that you can build a consensus around expanding the Freedom of Information Act to the Governor’s office and the Legislature?
I do. We’re going to be aggressive about that. I will, of course, give my inaugural speech on the 1st. We’ll be doing a State of the State about a month later and then introducing the state budget. All of those are opportunities to really use my platform to encourage the legislature to follow suit, but we are going to be opening up the executive office in some real meaningful ways.
Will you veto any policy legislation that includes an appropriation intended to make it referendum-proof?
Yeah, absolutely. That was a campaign pledge. When the legislature tries to do an end-run on the will of the people by making something referendum-proof, I think it’s undemocratic, and it’s something that I’ve always opposed. I will veto any legislation, no matter who’s written it, if they’re trying to undermine the ability of the public to have a referendum.
With the Mackinac Straits Corridor Authority being established, quickly taking public comment and trying to work out a deal with Enbridge before the end of the year, how will you approach this new Line 5 development as you come into office? What are your plans to make sure the state gets this right if this deal does go ahead?
I believe Line 5 poses such an incredible risk to the quality of our drinking water, to our agriculture, to our tourism. Our economy would be devastated by a spill in the Straits of Mackinac. This hastily negotiated plan that’s come out of the state capital means that Line 5 would stay in the water for seven to 10 more years. That’s not acceptable. When the dust settles on this term, I’m going to explore every one of my options and work with the Attorney General to see what tools are available to us to get the oil out of the water.
Do you expect to work with Midwest or Great Lakes Governors on a joint climate action plan?
Yes, I think that’s a great question. One of the interesting things that happens after you’ve been elected governor is you get invited to the National Governors Association for new governors school. It was two days. I did not learn everything I need to know (but) it was a good opportunity to actually build some relationships.
We’ve got a number of new governors coming in here in the Midwest — J.B. Pritzker in Illinois, Tim Walz in Minnesota, Tony Evers in Wisconsin, Mike DeWine in Ohio — a bipartisan group that I pulled together when we were at that meeting. I suggested we need to really start working together and meeting and protecting the Great Lakes and having that climate conversation as Midwest governors. All of them said that they wanted to do that as well.
I’m going to see that through, and make sure that where we have opportunities, whether it’s on the Asian carp front or it is in protecting the Great Lakes more generally from withdraws, that we are on the same page and we start doing the work together. I am very excited about that opportunity. There’s so many of us newly coming into office, I think there’s no playbook that we have to take from anyone else. We’re going to write it, and we’re going to get serious about doing it together.
What takeaways do you have from how the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs developed regulations for medical marijuana that would be able to improve upon the process of licensing recreational marijuana businesses in the coming year?
We saw in 2008 when the people amended our constitution to embrace medical marijuana that we didn’t have the leadership in the executive branch (nor) an Attorney General that wanted to actually promulgate rules. That just didn’t happen, and it became a morass. It never worked. It was part of what fed into this initiative because the state didn’t get it right.
We have an opportunity to get it right, but we have to take it very seriously and learn the lessons from other states, and make sure we promulgate rules to keep it out of the hands of our kids, and that we collect the taxes, and that they are expended the way that the people envisioned when they supported this measure on the ballot. It’s a very serious long-term undertaking, but it’s something that I want to make sure Michigan gets right, and perhaps people look to us as the example of a state that did it well.
One of the issues the business community has advocated for in recent years has been expanding the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to protect the LGBTQ community. Working with the GOP legislature, can you build a consensus that it’s time to make that change?
I think it’s possible. I’ve not met every individual who won elections in November, but I’m going to get to know them well and quickly. The business community really were leaders on the initial discussion about expanding Elliott-Larsen, because they know that it’s had a chilling effect on our ability to recruit talent to Michigan. That’s a community that I’m going to try and stay very close to on a number of issues, but on this one in particular. I think this election shows that people understand how important it is for us in the state, and for people as individuals, to protect their rights in their workplaces and in their residences.
You mentioned you’re waiting for the dust to settle in the lame-duck session. Is this a good way to govern? If you could, how would you change this legislative practice?
Transparency is very important. I think that gerrymandering has shown us that we can still have a legislature that does not reflect the will of the people and an abuse of power can come with that. I think that’s part of what we’re seeing here. The opportunity to go into redistricting and have actual fair line drawing of districts is going to be really important.
I think we should outlaw lame duck. I’ve always said that. When I was a legislator I said that. When we had a Democratic governor I said that. Very little good happens when, hastily, policy is changed by people that are no longer accountable to the public that they’re supposed to be serving.