LANSING, Michigan — Gov. Rick Snyder announced plans Tuesday to "dramatically" restructure state government in an effort he says will help the poor and renewed his call for a sales tax hike to improve deteriorating roads.
The Republican governor, weeks into his second four-year term, said in his fifth State of the State address that he will issue an executive order merging the Community Health and Human Services agencies into a new Department of Health and Human Services.
It's part of a long-term and still-forming plan to realign or eliminate at least 145 programs Snyder said are well-intentioned but facilitate dependency by addressing only symptoms of poverty and disabilities. He said that reorganizing programs would allow caseworkers to more clearly understand the entire circumstances of people they're trying to help.
"The system is failing folks," he said during a joint night session of the Legislature inside the House chamber. "That's not how you solve the problem of helping people have opportunity. ... You look at people that are in the mainstream of the river of opportunity and people that (are) not, that gap of difference is only increasing. That's unacceptable."
He also outlined new education initiatives to ensure more students enjoy access to opportunity without needing government aid in the first place.
The initiatives include calling for the GOP-controlled Legislature to authorize an outside commission to focus on third-grade reading — considered a critical benchmark — and other prenatal-to-third grade issues. He wants to improve the transition from high school to higher education, especially with a focus on training for jobs in the skilled trades.
Snyder also urged voters to pass a lawmaker-approved constitutional amendment on May 5 that would increase the sales tax from 6 percent to 7 percent, guaranteeing $1.2 billion a year more for roads and bridges.
"Vote yes so we can have safer roads. Vote yes so we can get rid of those crumbling bridges and crumbling roads," he said, adding that poor roads contribute to Michigan drivers spending $132 more a year on car repairs than their Indiana counterparts.
Snyder called for continued debate on a bill that stalled last session to amend Michigan's civil rights law to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity; mentioned future plans to target prescription drug and heroin abuse; again called for legislative approval of a new teacher evaluation system; and advocated for a rewrite of Michigan's energy law he will outline further in March.
Snyder made government restructuring the key theme of a 49-minute speech that also touched on 2014 accomplishments: Detroit's emergence from bankruptcy, voters' OK of a business tax cut and increased funding to help more low-income 4-year-olds attend preschool.
Combining the agencies will be complicated, in part because many programs are federal or rely on federal funding. But Snyder, who in February will unveil his next state budget while addressing a $289 million shortfall in the current fiscal year, also said he will propose bolstering programs that work. Those include Pathways to Potential, which embeds social workers in public schools, and Community Ventures, which connects unemployed residents with companies that are hiring.
Snyder spokeswoman Sara Wurfel said it's too early to say if there will be layoffs as a result of the merger of two agencies with more than 14,000 employees.
Democrats said while they agree with Snyder's goal of better helping low-income residents, they need to hear more specifics.
"If he's going to model reforms based on real, proven success stories and models that have worked in other states, we stand ready to join with him and work together to accomplish that," said House Minority Leader Tim Greimel, D-Auburn Hills, who added there could be short-term budgetary costs of consolidating the departments. "If, on the other hand, he's going to simply use rhetoric and try to cut programs under the guise of changing government, then we're going to have some concerns."
Republican House Speaker Kevin Cotter of Mount Pleasant said the merger is "long overdue" because there's overlap where the agencies serve the same people. Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, called it a "great concept" that won't be easy to see through because departments and even legislators are "set in their ways."
Ray Holman, spokesman for United Auto Workers Local 6000, which represents many DHS workers, said regardless of the number of agencies, "there needs to be enough staff to appropriately do the job. We have been doing more with less for way too long."
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