Gov. Gretchen Whitmer will use her first State of the State address to preview her plans to “build a better Michigan,” but a significant part of Tuesday’s speech will be devoted to a “sober assessment” of how bad things are in state government, the governor said Monday.
State government workers suffer from low morale and inadequate resources after years of budget restrictions, Whitmer told the Free Press.
Employees are working on clunky and outdated computer systems, she said, despite eight years under Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, a self-described information technology nerd and the former CEO of Gateway Computers.
The resulting problems hurt not just state workers but all Michigan residents through reduced and impaired services, according to the governor and a sometimes blistering six-page report — released exclusively to the Free Press — prepared by “landing teams” Whitmer sent into each state agency to talk with employees in November and December.
Among other problems, the report cites dangers to food safety, reduced access to mental health services, and state police shortages that make it more difficult and time-consuming to solve crimes.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (Photo: Mandi Wright, Detroit Free Press)
Whitmer, a Democrat who took office Jan. 1, will address lawmakers and invited guests at the Capitol in Lansing at 7 p.m. The speech will be broadcast live on public TV and radio and also live-streamed on the Internet.
Though the main focus of her speech will be roads, education and drinking water, Whitmer said she will devote a significant piece of it to addressing the findings of the internal report.
“My ability to be successful as governor depends on the ability of the 48,000 people who actually do the hard front-line work every day to be successful as well,” Whitmer said.
“There will be part of the State of the State that is dedicated to acknowledging that, to having a real sober assessment of what we need to fix.”
At the Department of Environmental Quality, “post-Flint stress has spread throughout the department,” as “under-staffing is already adding extra anxiety,” and “repeated legislative attacks on core programs and purposes and a lack of funding to meet the public’s expectations on protection from environmental harms adds a serious level of stress,” the report said.
At the Department of Education, morale problems are linked to leadership changes and “confusion caused by constant legislative changes which can create moving targets” for staff, according to the report.
The Michigan State Police “must work together as a unit to keep Michiganders safe,” but “recent controversy surrounding the social media post of a former leader has created division among the force,” the report said. It’s a reference to former Col. Kriste Kibbey Etue’s Facebook post of a meme that attacked NFL players who kneel in protest during the national anthem as “anti-American degenerates.”
At the Department of Talent and Economic Development, “staff expressed confusion over the leadership structure due to an unclear organizational chart,” the report said.
Whitmer said she’s personally attacking the morale problem by visiting every state department and by spending a few minutes each morning writing thank you notes to state employees identified by department heads as going “above and beyond” in their daily work.
“I think our state workforce has been under-appreciated,” she said. “That’s something that you can’t put a price on, but we know there’s a big cost, and so just by showing up, you know, I’ve been into every department since I took office and in just about every single one I met a state employee with 30 to 40 years of experience who had never met a governor before.”
Addressing “rampant” computer problems across state government should also help morale, she said.
“Outdated technology, data storage issues, poorly designed user interfaces and the inadequate use of technology both hurt employees’ productivity and can make it difficult for Michigan residents to access state government services,” the report said.
Given Snyder’s computer background, “I thought the IT situation would be better,” Whitmer said.
In some cases, such as at the Department of Insurance and Financial Services, core operating systems have not been significantly upgraded since the 1980s, the report said.
And at the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, “outdated systems impede the department’s ability to carry out its regulatory responsibilities, which could jeopardize food safety.”
Though the use of technology has significantly improved efficiency in the private sector, state “departments are still using paper when they could be using computers or tablets to work more efficiently and effectively,” the report said.
And many systems the state does use, such as MILogin, used for unemployment and job search services, and Bridges, used to determine eligibility for food assistance and other services at the Department of Health and Human Services, are “cumbersome, duplicative, and glitch-prone,” the report said.
Whitmer said the Snyder administration made IT “commitments … that I now have to figure out how to pay for.”
The report said “nearly every department in our state is facing serious budget issues,” and in many departments “a lack of funding means our state challenges go unaddressed.”
At the state police, crime lab backlogs “are a persistent problem due to lack of funding,” and there are too few crime analysts, the report said.
The Department of Natural Resources has a backlog of $264 million in deferred parks maintenance and at DHHS, the “public mental health system is chronically underfunded, which can turn manageable problems like depression into more serious, and costly problems, like substance abuse,” the report said.
Fees charged for various permits and other services have not been increased to keep pace with inflation or are about to expire, adding to the budget crunch, the report said.
At the Michigan Department of Transportation, “state aviation fuel tax rates and plane registration fees have not changed since their inception,” resulting in the state Aeronautics Commission having insufficient revenues to get matching grants from the Federal Aviation Administration, the report said.
Whitmer said that’s one of several examples of the state leaving federal money on the table, which she said is a case of being penny wise and pound foolish.
“If there’s any opportunity to draw down match dollars, especially when they are two to three to one, we have an obligation to get as much Michigan money back into Michigan from the federal government” as possible, Whitmer said.
The state’s environmental bond, the $675-million Clean Michigan Initiative, expired recently, leaving the future of much environmental cleanup work in doubt, the report said.
Whitmer wouldn’t say whether she would announce plans Tuesday for new major bonds to address state problems.
“In the State of the State is our opportunity to really identify what we’re going to do and then the budget (in early March) is where you get more of the detail about what the solutions look like,” she said.
With the state workforce aging and many employees reaching retirement age, the administration suffers from a lack of diversity and trouble with talent recruitment, the report said.
Up to one-third of employees in some state agencies are eligible to retire in the next five years, according to the report.
At the Michigan State Police, “the department doesn’t have a clear way to identify and elevate future leaders, especially from minority groups,” the report said.
“Lack of diversity is a serious concern for the department given the need for racial sensitivity in policing.”