By DAVID EGGERT
LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Cleaning up contaminated drinking water and smoothing deteriorating roads will top the agenda for Michigan Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat who said this week she hopes to find bipartisan consensus with the GOP-controlled Legislature.
Speaking at a news conference in Detroit, Whitmer insisted that was the priority she placed on infrastructure that drew Republicans, independents and first-time voters to her campaign and helped her defeat her Republican opponent, Bill Schuette, by 9 points.
“People really sent a very clear message: They want us to fix the damn roads,” she said.
Whitmer repeated that if lawmakers are unwilling to support higher fuel taxes or other revenue-boosting options, she will ask voters to approve billions of dollars worth of borrowing to overhaul roads, bridges, water systems and other priorities. Michigan has been dealing with the consequences of elevated levels of lead in its water — in the city of Flint and at Detroit public schools — along with long-lasting industrial chemicals that have tainted tap water in various places.
“We’re all paying a water tax if you have to buy bottled water,” she said.
Although more is already being spent on road work under laws that will not fully be phased in until 2021, a state infrastructure commission has warned that without more spending, road and bridge conditions will continue to worsen. The commission has called for an additional $2.2 billion to be set aside for public works each year.
Also on Wednesday, Whitmer said she may use her clemency power to expunge marijuana convictions after voters’ approval of a ballot initiative to legalize the drug for recreational use.
“The people of Michigan have said that for conduct that would now be considered legal, no one should bear a lifelong record for that conduct,” she said. “We will start taking a look at that and making some decisions and taking some action early next year.”
The group behind the successful legalization push, which was passed 56 percent to 44 percent, said last month that between 2013 and 2015, 82 percent of the incidents involving marijuana-related arrests were not connected to another, more-serious crime.
Whitmer also met privately in Lansing with Gov. Rick Snyder, who has to leave office because of term limits. She said she would like to meet soon with the next crop of legislative leaders after they are chosen by rank-and-file legislators on Thursday, adding that she intends to “work very hard” to build and maintain relationships in the Capitol.
“It’s what people in Michigan want and expect from us,” said Whitmer, who will become the first governor with legislative experience since John Engler, who served from 1991 through 2002.
Democrats made electoral gains in the Legislature but not enough to break the GOP’s majorities. They netted five seats in both chambers, narrowing Republicans’ edge to 22-16 in the Senate and 58-52 in the House. The GOP has led the House since 2011 and the Senate since 1984.
Snyder said he looks forward to working with Whitmer and her team to ensure there will be a smooth transition. She planned to announce her transition leaders later on Wednesday and said she will put together a diverse Cabinet.
“Governor-elect Whitmer’s success means Michigan’s success,” Snyder said in a statement. “I urge all Michiganders to join me in committing to a spirit of civility, unity, collaboration and teamwork to ensure Michigan continues on the right path toward our promising future.”