As a new governor and state Legislature prepare to take office in January, Roger Martin, a partner at the advocacy firm Martin Waymire Inc., is among the people who remain hopeful for a new spirit of bipartisanship in Lansing to address some of the major issues facing Michigan. That includes deteriorating infrastructure across the state that goes beyond the roads. How well Democratic Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer and the Republican-controlled legislature work together remains the big unknown, although Martin sees her experience as a legislative leader as a big plus coming into office that predecessors Rick Snyder and Jennifer Granholm lacked.
What’s the general mood these days at the state Capitol going into 2019?
The big question mark looking into 2019 and 2020 is what’s going to play out and win out here: The politics of solutions or the politics of stalemate? To the extent that it’s the politics of solutions, there are certain issues out there looming that I think — and a lot of people around town believe — could end up getting solved. And I say that with some degree of reluctance because we just don’t see a lot of solutions anymore. We just see a lot of stalemates and a lot of ‘no, no, no.’ Is the Legislature going to be one of obstruction? Or are they going to let the new governor try to advance an agenda that they can both work with? I don’t know, and that’s the great unanswered question here.
Is infrastructure the obvious top issue?
It is three years running the top issue of concern to voters across the state. I can show you five to seven polls where that’s been the case. And it’s roads and other infrastructure. People understand increasingly we have more than problems with our roads and bridges. We have problems with our aging drinking water systems. We have problems with stormwater and wastewater systems, some of which are 75 to 100 years old. We have a couple thousand dams in this state, and nearly 80 percent of them are at or will be at their design lives. There is no plan in the state budget to fix any of that, other than roads and bridges, and that, as we all know, is inadequate.
What are the chances Whitmer can deliver on her promises to do something about it?
The Governor-elect ran pretty boldly on a ‘fix the damn roads’ campaign slogan. So again, politics of solutions or stalemate? Is the legislature actually going to agree on a solution that is actually going to solve a massive problem created by literally decades of failure in Lansing? Are they going to be able to come together and solve this? If they do, the Republicans will have ceded to her a huge political victory.
What other issues are out there legislatively for 2019?
Protecting and increasing access to affordable health care. Health care was a key issue for the Governor-elect, too, as it was for Gov. Snyder. Gov. Snyder, like Gov. Kasich in Ohio, pushed hard to get Medicaid expansion in their states and they’re proving to be very successful. There are certainly things that can be done policy-wise to further increase access to health care and lower costs in Michigan. We’ll see how they come together on that.
Next is tax cuts. They didn’t play really well, obviously, in the 2018 midterms if you look across the country, but the Governor-elect has promised to eliminate the pension tax, and she’d obviously like to find support in the legislature to do that, too. But will this become a game of ‘I’ll see your pension tax cut and I’ll raise you an income tax cut?’ Will this just become one tax cut in exchange for a bigger tax cut? If that happens, how is the state going to pay for all of that? To some degree, tax cuts are coming, one or more.
One has to presume talent ranks highly as well, right?
There’s a reason why Amazon selected Virginia and New York City for 25,000 jobs that are going in the new headquarters there. It’s because they can find the talent in those states to fill those jobs. What are Republicans and Democrats going to do to come together to figure out how we are going to increase the level of college-educated people in this state?
What kind of legislature will the incoming governor face?
Right now, everybody’s saying the right thing. ‘We need to work together. We need to reach across the aisle.’ She understands how the legislature works. She understands how individual legislators have to work and function to protect their own re-election ambitions. There’s some value in that moving forward here, and that certainly gives more hope. I believe sincerely that her level of knowledge — not just of the political process, but the policy problems facing the state — are certainly deeper than Rick Snyder or Jennifer Granholm. She has more experience than both of them combined in dealing with the most pressing policy issues facing this state. Not even close.
What does she have in her favor?
She has an electorate in Michigan that coalesced around her message, and that’s probably not going away. That coalition that elected her is not going away, at least not for the next two years. Or to the extent that the Republicans want to poke the beehive here, I think it’s to their own peril to a large degree. We haven’t had someone who can talk the talk of the legislature for some time. She’s able to do that.
What’s a headwind that’s going to frustrate her?
A legislature that’s going to say ‘no’ simply for the sake of a political victory. So she needs to be really bold. I would suggest that being bold is the right course of action here, however she wants to define that. But you just can’t sit back and accept ‘no’ as an answer to everything on your agenda.
What do you see coming to the forefront in 2019 that’s not getting great attention now?
PFAS contamination. No one really quite knows how big a problem this is, and it’s a question that’s haunting a lot of folks, from West Michigan to Wurtsmith Air Force Base to Walloon Lake. This is a big problem and I’m anxious to see, as are a lot of people, how big it becomes and what the Governor-elect and members of the state Legislature are going to have to try to do to address it. The paths are leading right to their desks right now, that’s for sure.
What would surprise you in Lansing in 2019?
Maybe it’s my too many years in politics and following politics and doing what I do. I like to look on the bright side but always expect the dark side to prevail. I would be really surprised, pleasantly so, if the governor and the legislature can come together on a policy solution that actually solves the state’s massive infrastructure problem. It would create thousands of jobs, it would make our roads and our infrastructure safer, and it would be a signal to employers across the state and elsewhere that this is a state that’s willing to invest in an infrastructure that’s critical to the success of any industry. Right now, it is hard to even see what that solution is and what it could be and what they could agree on.
Interview conducted and condensed by Mark Sanchez.