Gov. Gretchen Whitmer talks water crisis, education, auto insurance at Flint roundtable


Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said she’s looking for ways to lower auto insurance costs, lower state spending on legal bills associated with the Flint water crisis and advance “creative solutions” to promote literacy.

“I inherited a lot of tough issues,” Whitmer said Wednesday, April 10, at a citizens roundtable discussion in Flint.

Sponsored by MLive Media Group and ABC 12, the ABC-TV affiliate in Flint, the event had Whitmer answering questions from a panel of six citizens as well as taking questions from social media.

Many of the questions involved the Flint water crisis, which makes its fifth anniversary this month. It was April 2014 when the city, then under a state-appointed emergency manager, switched its water supply and inadvertently caused lead to leach into the water supply. The state’s mishandling of the situation allowed it to continue for more than a year, resulting in widespread lead poisoning that is still in the process of being corrected.

The first question at the roundtable was how Whitmer planned to regain Flint citizens’ trust in state government.

“You start by showing up and listening,” Whitmer said. “It’s having a honest conversation about tackling tough situations. … This is something that is going to take time, but I’m absolutely committed to it.”

Anybody with suggestions, she added, she and her staff “are all in.”

Panelist Arthur Woodson said a sore point with many is the state money spent on lawyers defending former and current state employees facing criminal and civil legal action related to the water crisis. “We’re wasting money,” he said.

Whitmer acknowledged the issue, and said she and her advisers are “absolutely” are looking at ways to cap costs.

However, she added, there are legal as well as practical reasons for the state to pay attorney costs for state workers.

“We’re doing the hard work to develop policy” around Flint legal bills, she said. “But there are some statutory requirements that we have to pay some legal bills.”

Moreover, there are some moral obligations, too, she said. “We have 45,000 state workers, and they need to know their employer has their back. But we’re working on the policy going forward.”

On education, Whitmer was asked about her plan to triple the money for literacy coaches in elementary schools and whether she had a plan to fund parent education programs so parents can effectively promote literacy at home.

“You’re raising an important issue” but not one funded in the current budget proposal, Whitmer said.

She said she’s open to “creative solutions” to promote literacy, such as opening community “literacy labs.”

Whitmer said the literacy issue ties into one of her top priorities, which is the “skills gap” between those who need jobs and employers who need to fill positions. The governor said less than half of Michigan adults have a post-secondary degree, but “the vast majority of jobs require that, at a minimum.”

Whitmer’s budget includes a proposal for people to get a community college degree or certificate debt-free, and she pushed the value of jobs in the skilled trades.

“You can get a great job in Michigan” as electrician, she said. “We have to get beyond the mindset that you need a four-year degree.”

Whitmer also predicted Michigan residents will soon see “major change around auto insurance.”

Michigan has the highest average premiums in the nation, a result of a no-fault insurance program that provides generous lifelong benefits for people who sustain serious, permanent injuries in a vehicle crash.

“I want to give people some relief” from high premiums, she said.

But rather than addressing the issues with the no-fault program, Whitmer pointed to regulations that allow auto insurers to base premiums on factors such as gender and credit scores.

“There’s a lot of greed” in the current system, Whitmer said. “It’s discriminatory and it’s wrong.”

Whitmer also was asked about getting millennials more engaged in government and public service.

“I don’t think we give millennials enough credit,” she said. “Every person I’ve met in the millennial generation has a compulsion to do good” but they can be cynical about government.

Yet government is so essential to so many aspects of everyday life, “we can’t look at it as an impediment but as a tool for the good work they want to do,” Whitmer said.

She encouraged young adults to run for office or work for candidates.

Public services is “really rewarding,” she said. “You could go into the Legislature right now and do a better job than some of the people who are there.”

Wednesday’s panel was moderated by Emily Lawler, a reporter on MLive’s Public Interest team, and Dawn Jones, an anchor for ABC 12.

The panelists were:

  • Shan Jackson, a health and nutrition coach.
  • Laura Sullivan, a mechanical engineering professor at Kettering University who has been the advocates in the Flint water crisis.
  • Arthur Woodson, a community activist involved in the water crisis.
  • Ebonie Gipson, owner of I’m Building Something and an advocate for small business owners.
  • Joseph Pettigrew, a 24-year-old activist on the issue of gun violence.
  • Catrina Tillman, first lady of First Trinity Missionary Baptist Church and an activist in the water crisis.

MLive has hosted a series of citizen roundtables with gubernatorial candidates and now with Whitmer as governor. Most recently, she joined panelists in Grand Rapids to discuss her budget proposal, including the proposed gas tax increase.

The entire discussion can be viewed on MLive’s Facebook page.



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