Democrats vying for Michigan governor head into the final two months of their primary fight with a number of new policy initiatives in hand, including a single-payer system of universal health care, a college scholarship program and a plan to offset child care costs so women can work.
The first Democrat-only televised debate is Wednesday, a natural forum for the three candidates to tout their agendas to a broader audience after several weeks of unveiling fresh items.
Gretchen Whitmer, Shri Thanedar and Abdul El-Sayed agree on many issues, like raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, spending much more on roads and other infrastructure, shutting down twin oil pipelines in a waterway linking two of the Great Lakes and repealing the state's emergency manager law. But there are some differences that are being emphasized more in the stretch to the Aug. 7 election.
El-Sayed, Detroit's former health director, has proposed a plan to provide all Michigan residents with government-financed "Michicare" until they reach Medicare age, including 600,000 who have no insurance. He hopes to make it a "wedge issue," especially with Whitmer, who has not embraced the single-payer concept and whom he has criticized for accepting campaign donations from the political action committee of Blue Cross Blue Shield, the state's dominant insurer.
"Health care is a human right," he said, contending that raising taxes to fund the Medicare-for-all-style system while eliminating premiums, deductibles and copays would save both residents and businesses overall.
Whitmer is expected to announce her own health care plan before the primary and most recently has rolled out education and economic proposals while also focusing on her mantra to "fix the damn roads." The former Senate minority leader frequently points to her role in the bipartisan expansion of Medicaid to more than 600,000 adults, including in a TV ad that is airing.
"She's the only candidate in the race who has actually expanded coverage for Michiganders," said spokesman Zack Pohl.
El-Sayed, who is courting the party's liberal wing and in recent days outlined a plan to address high auto insurance premiums, proposes paying for Michicare with a 2 percent or 2.25 percent gross receipts tax on businesses, depending on their size, with the first $2 million exempt from taxation. He also would effectively raise the state's 4.25 percent personal income tax to between 5 percent and 8 percent, via a graduated payroll tax.
Thanedar, a multimillionaire businessman, also supports a universal, single-payer system but has not elaborated. He is recommending tax increases to fund signature facets of his economic plan — expanding child care subsidies to cover 345,000 additional low-income children, ten times more than now, and paying for 78,000 more 3- and 4-year-olds to attend preschool. He says the moves would allow thousands of women to re-enter the workforce and improve students' educational outcomes.
He wants to boost the 6 percent corporate income tax to 7.5 percent for businesses with at least $350,000 in gross receipts and assess a 10 percent tax on the portion of receipts exceeding $1 million. He also would assess an 8.85 percent personal income tax for individuals earning at least $200,000 and a 10 percent rate for millionaires. Households with less than $50,000 income would pay no income tax.
"We are one big family. We need to chip in to make it helpful to the ones who need help," Thanedar said during a recent joint Democratic-Republican debate on Mackinac Island.
Both he and El-Sayed, if elected, would face steep obstacles, including a Republican-led Legislature — unless power shifts — and the constitutional requirement that voters approve a graduated income tax.
Whitmer, with an eye toward the general election, has been more pragmatic — focusing on what her camp says is actually achievable in the current budget and political environment. While not ruling anything out, she has not called for changes to business or income taxes and has proposed repealing the taxation of retirement income that was enacted as part of a GOP-written tax overhaul.
She pledges to work with lawmakers to fund an infrastructure bank to upgrade roads through user fees such as higher fuel taxes or, if that is unsuccessful, to ask voters to approve bonding. Thanedar wants to borrow money, while El-Sayed also proposes an infrastructure bank funded with increased fuel taxes and other revenue-raising mechanisms.
The centerpiece of Whitmer's jobs plan is providing a two-year maximum $3,040 annual scholarship to high school graduates who attend an in-state university, community college or receive technical training, as long as they do community service, maintain a certain grade point average and have a good attendance record. The estimated cost is $100 million a year.
"It's about creating a path for everyone in to a high-wage skill," she said.