Whitmer answers insurance reform critics, says leaders ready to work through summer on budget

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks at the auto insurance reform bill signing, May 30, 2019 | Andrew Roth

Some progressives are unhappy with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer for approving a bipartisan no-fault reform plan, but she told the Michigan Advance Thursday that it’s not a giveaway to the insurance industry.

“This is a system that’s been around for a long time and we’ve made a major change that is far superior to the bills as originally introduced, or a ballot initiative [from Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert] that would’ve thrown the whole system away,” Whitmer said.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signs the auto insurance reform bill, May 30, 2019 | Andrew Roth

The governor sat down with the Advance shortly before she signed the bill on the Grand Hotel porch in a made-for-media moment at the Mackinac Policy Conference. She was accompanied at the press conference by legislative leaders from both parties.

The Advance asked Whitmer the million-dollar question — or rather, $2.5 billion — following the resolution of the GOP’s top priority of no-fault reform: Will this be a springboard for the governor’s No. 1 issue of “fixing the damn roads?”

“Yeah,” she said. “I think that we have shown a propensity and ability to stay at the table and work together.”

The Michigan Capitol rotunda | Susan J. Demas

Whitmer also talked about her relationship with the Michigan Association of Justice, a key Democratic constituency representing 1,500 plaintiff’s attorneys and staff, which was one of the chief opponents of the new auto insurance law.

And she discussed working with the Legislature through the summer on the fiscal year 2020 budget, as well as the possibility of a graduated income tax ballot proposal next year.

The following are excerpts from the interview:

Michigan Advance: What is your response to some of the critics, especially progressives, who say that no-fault reform was just a giveaway to the insurance industry?

Whitmer: Anyone who was vested in the status quo was going to find issues to be unhappy with in this bill. It’s not perfect, but the fact of the matter is, we worked really hard to give savings to consumers and to protect the safety net. I think that this bill presents a step forward on both of those fronts.

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This is a system that’s been around for a long time and we’ve made a major change that is far superior to the bills as originally introduced, or a ballot initiative that would’ve thrown the whole system away. So we got serious about negotiating the terms so that they were mindful of the need to give people relief for consumers, and protect that safety net we all rely on.

Michigan Advance: The trial lawyers are a key part of the Democratic coalition. Are you concerned at all about your relationship with them after this?

Whitmer: Well, I’ve been very grateful for a mutually beneficial relationship over the years. I have a great deal of respect for the leadership of the organization [the Michigan Association of Justice] and members. I think the prospect of any sort of a ballot initiative that was throwing the whole system away was one that was just too dire to not get to the table and try to negotiate the best terms that we could.

And I will continue to work closely with the trial lawyers and have a great deal of respect for them.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey and House Speaker Lee Chatfield at the auto insurance reform bill signing, May 30, 2019 | Andrew Roth

Michigan Advance: There wasn’t a grand bargain with Republican leaders, and there hasn’t been any other movement on your gas tax proposal. But do you feel like this process has built some political capital towards that end, especially with a roads solution?

Whitmer: Yeah. I think that we have shown a propensity and ability to stay at the table and work together. And every one of the project leaders has now acknowledged that we’ve got to continue that kind of action toward fixing the road problem and getting the budget done this summer. So this is something that I think will bode well as we move into the road and budget conversations.

Michigan Advance: Do you anticipate having a deal before the fall?

Whitmer: Yes.

Michigan Advance: So they’re [Republican legislative leaders] willing to work through the summer?

Whitmer: Yes.

Michigan Capitol | Jennifer Pack, Flickr

Michigan Advance: If you can’t strike a deal on road funding this year, would a graduated income tax ballot measure be on the table, in your eyes, next year?

Whitmer: You know, that’s something that I have said in the past [that it’s] a philosophy that I subscribe to and that I would support. I can’t build a budget this year based on the prospect of a ballot initiative next year, but if that were to proceed, I think that there could be some powerful reasons that have been made [for it to pass].

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Susan J. Demas is an 18-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQs, the state budget, the economy and more. Most recently, she served as Vice President of Farough & Associates, Michigan’s premier political communications firm. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 80 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive. She is the only Michigan journalist to be named to the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Reporters,” the Huffington Post’s list of “Best Political Tweeters” and the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Bloggers.” Susan was the recipient of a prestigious Knight Foundation fellowship in nonprofits and politics. She served as Deputy Editor for MIRS News and helped launch the Michigan Truth Squad, the Center for Michigan’s fact-checking project. She started her journalism career reporting on the Iowa caucuses for The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette. Susan has hiked over 3,000 solo miles across four continents and climbed more than 60 mountains. She also enjoys dragging her husband and two teenagers along, even if no one else wants to sleep in a tent anymore.

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