GOP leaders: Whitmer’s road bonding plan is ‘hypocritical’

No interest in repealing 3rd grade reading law

House Speaker Lee Chatfield (left) and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (right) | Allison Donahue

The day after Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced her bonding plan to fix the roads, state House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) were still fired up against it.  

Shirkey says the plan unveiled during Whitmer’s State of the State address, which will increase the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) budget by $3.5 billion, “is a finance tool, not a funding source.” 

Whitmer’s plan bypassed the Legislature after Republicans rejected her 45-cent gas tax increase proposal last year. On Thursday morning, the State Transportation Commission unanimously approved the bonds. Republicans had scheduled a press conference afterward.

Shirkey and Chatfield said one of their greatest concerns with the plan is that it has not been made clear to Michiganders that it’s only a short-term solution to fix Michigan’s roads. 

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Whitmer addressed this issue directly in her State of the State address Wednesday night.

“But let me be clear: these new projects will only address the worst of our most highly traveled state roads,” Whitmer said. “We still need the Legislature to come up with a real, long-term solution to fix the roads.”

Chatfield called Whitmer’s plan “hypocritical,” saying she adamantly pushed back against a Republican idea to redirect the 6% sales tax on gas to road repairs. Whitmer and education leaders were concerned about the hit to school funding.

“At times, it’s difficult to take this administration seriously,” Chatfield said. 

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Later on Thursday, Chatfield traveled to Selfridge Air National Guard Base in Harrison Township to greet President Donald Trump, who’s doing an event in Warren touting the new United States-Mexico-Canada (USMCA) trade agreement he signed Wednesday. The speaker attended Trump’s campaign events in Grand Rapids and Battle Creek last year.

Whitmer is scheduled to give the Democratic response on Tuesday to Trump’s State of the Union speech.

There were some glimmers of hope for the new year, though, as Chatfield and Shirkey spotted common ground with the governor. 

Chatfield said he appreciated Whitmer’s emphasis on auto insurance reform — the 2019 law was one of the most high-profile bipartisan victories — and her dedication to mental health and criminal justice reform.

Shirkey said he is excited to “roll up his sleeves” and collaborate on Whitmer’s proposals to expand resources and support for pregnant and postpartum women, which is an issue he says is “near and dear to my heart.”

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Another topic that Whitmer addressed during the State of the State was her plans to improve public education and fund it through the Fiscal Year 2021 budget plan she will announce on Feb. 6. 

During her address, Whitmer was critical of former Gov. Rick Snyder’s Read by Grade Three law, which requires school districts to hold back students who do not meet reading proficiency standards. She said the law is “punitive” and could be a nightmare for families. 

Chatfield stands by the law and says it is “cruel to pass kids through the school system who can’t read.”

Shirkey seemed open to continuing the conversation with the governor about the early literacy law, but doesn’t believe it should be repealed. 

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“We should absolutely revisit [the Read by Grade Three law] from the standpoint of: Is it performing as intended and are there needs or things to be tweaked or improved? But to repeal it and … give up on third-graders, I think would be a horrible idea,” Shirkey said. 

Whitmer announced her plan to move toward an equitable funding formula, which would provide more funding for schools with a disproportionate number of students with special needs and historically disadvantaged students. 

“I am happy to have the conversation assessing how schools are funded based on need, not based on geography,” Shirkey said. “One size probably doesn’t fit all.”