From the moment Gretchen Whitmer entered the room, Kelly Rossman-McKinney knew she had make a mistake.
When the then-29-year-old arrived at the East Lansing Rotary Club event to campaign for the 70th district seat in the 2000 election, the Democratic candidate’s charisma was palpable.
“I realized I had backed the wrong horse,” said Rossman-McKinney, a Lansing-based public relations consultant who was supporting Republican candidate Bill Hollister. “She has all the attributes of a good politician — somebody who’s very, very good at being a candidate.”
The Michigan 2020 Plan
SB 1015: Creates the Michigan Higher Education Grant Act, which would save money to dole out to high school graduates from within the state. The money would average about $9,575 per year and could be used for books, tuition or fees at any public university in the state.
SB 1016: Requires the Senate and House Fiscal Agencies to rate tax bills on an A through F basis, pending how many jobs the law would create.
SB 1017: Would create a special legislative initiative consisting of five nonpartisan economists from MSU, University of Michigan, Wayne State University, Michigan Technological University and the Upjohn Institute.
Senate Joint Resolution T: A push for a constitutional amendment that would require tax exemptions to expire after four years. It also would require that a term-limited legislature does not spend future revenues.
Another planned bill, which has yet to be introduced, would restore the Michigan Promise Scholarship, which awarded up to $4,000 for students who would have been eligible for the scholarship before it was cut.
State Sen. Whitmer, D-East Lansing, who grew up in East Lansing and graduated with an undergraduate and law degree from MSU, beat Hollister in that election by about 4,000 votes three months after a narrow primary race, riding on a platform pillared on empowering higher education, according to State News election coverage.
Twelve years later, she now is the highest-ranking Democrat in state government as minority leader in the Senate.
College access has been one of the defining issues of Whitmer’s career as she has come to represent the party’s face. Now, she has carried that message to the Democratic platform with a package of bills aimed to provide free college to Michigan students and possibly restore up to $4,000 in scholarship money for current students.
Although Whitmer said the first stages of the project, named Michigan 2020, will be facing serious debate in the Legislature within the next six weeks, other experts and lawmakers are less optimistic, as the package will almost certainly face a hard road to law.
“It’s pretty unrealistic that anything like this is going to happen,” said Bill Ballenger, editor of Inside Michigan Politics. “It would be totally unrealistic and irresponsible (in today’s economy).”
As Democratic leader, Whitmer has drawn polar differences between herself and Republican Gov. Rick Snyder not just in substance, but in style. He rarely wears a neck tie; she sports flashy outfits, bright pink nail polish and deep shades of lipstick.
Snyder has pushed considerable cuts to scale back government spending, including a 15 percent cut to higher education during his first year, compared to Whitmer’s support of college funding through proposed legislation. The 2020 plan embodies the differences in leadership, Whitmer said — a bold plan to contrast the Republican vision in the state.
“We wanted to have something to put forward,” Whitmer said. “We don’t want to continue to fight the disinvestment in higher education, we want to put a real plan on the table.”
The plan consists of four main bills, carrying a sticker price of $1.8 billion, nearly a quarter the cost of the state’s general fund. One would create a fund in the Department of Treasury to create the scholarship, which has the maximum amount at the median state tuition level — currently at about $9,575 per year per student. The scholarship would be available to high school graduates as early as the class of 2013, for students who graduated from high school from a school in the state, public or private.
Whitmer said she will not be able to push it through without Republican cooperation, and right now they’re not ready to commit.
Sen. Majority Leader Randy Richardville spokeswoman Amber McCann said Republicans are concerned that the figures presented do not accurately reflect the potential costs of the project.
“I don’t necessarily know this is the best path to achieve (increased access to college),” McCann said.
She said Republicans would be open to hearings focused on closing tax loopholes, both for the 2020 plan and other funding initiatives.
The other bills in the package would cover more of the plan’s logistics, which would include evaluating tax credits for effectiveness, both by the House Fiscal Agency and a panel of independent economists. Legislators would then review each tax credit, cutting the least effective.
The goal is to fund the plan entirely by closing the loopholes, some of which Whitmer said have proven not to create jobs.
A planned fifth bill, which has not yet been introduced, would reinstate the Michigan Promise Scholarship for students who were set to receive the now-cut $4,000 scholarship.
But experts in Lansing have said the plan is a pipe dream, with funding lacking the political support from Republicans, who control the Legislature in the largest majority since the 1940s.
“It has lofty goals,” said Lansing-based political consultant Craig Ruff. “The problem, of course, is how you fund and finance it.”
But for Whitmer and other supporters, a bold vision for education and Michigan’s economy — even a long-shot one — still is progress.
“It’s not something that’s going to happen overnight, but it’s the beginning of a process,” said Dianne Byrum, an MSU Trustee who formerly served with Whitmer in the House. “You have to give them alternatives to work for.”