LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Michigan is "the place to be," Gov. Rick Snyder said Thursday during a speech in which he introduced a plan to make the state more welcoming to immigrants and more enticing for foreign investment. He also pledged to free up more preschool slots for disadvantaged 4-year-olds.
The initiatives — along with a pilot project for moving some low-performing public schools to a year-round calendar and detecting financial problems in school districts and municipalities before they need state intervention — were among the highlights of the Republican governor's fourth annual State of the State address.
Snyder, who is up for re-election in November, touted Michigan's "comeback" during the hour-long address to a joint session of the Republican-led Legislature. He mentioned the auto industry's resurgence, a drop in violent crime, the state's budget surplus and two consecutive years of population growth for the first time in a decade.
"People are staying again in Michigan, and we should be proud of that," he said.
Pointing to nearly $1 billion in surplus revenue, Snyder said he will propose tax relief for individuals when unveiling his budget in three weeks. He declined to elaborate further.
He committed to seeking an additional $65 million so low-income children no longer have to be on a waiting list for financial help to attend preschool. Michigan led the U.S. last year with the biggest spending increase on early childhood programs, both on a percentage and dollar-amount basis, he said.
"We're going to make it a no-wait state for early childhood education," Snyder said.
Snyder also will soon issue an executive order creating the Office for New Americans, joining two other states that have put immigration services under one roof.
His administration has applied to make Michigan the second state government along with Vermont to run a regional center for the EB-5 visa program, with the goal of attracting talented immigrant entrepreneurs. The EB-5 program designates businesses to recruit foreign investors for development projects — the investors get permanent U.S. residency for themselves and their families.
"If someone has the opportunity to come to our country legally, let's hold our arms open and say, 'Come to Michigan, this is the place to be,'" Snyder said.
One proposal Democrats welcomed was his push for increased early learning funding, but they said it should not come at the expense of less funding for other students.
"How he did it last (year) was by taking money out of the school aid fund to do it. It was not a new investment," said Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer, an East Lansing Democrat. "It was stealing from one child to pay for another."
Democrats also said the surplus came thanks to the GOP raising taxes on individuals in 2011 to offset a tax cut for businesses. And Whitmer called into question Snyder's emphasis on immigration.
"I think most people in Michigan are scratching their heads a little bit saying, 'Why do we need to import degree holders?' What about ... giving our kids the degrees so they can do the jobs he's claiming to try to lure to Michigan?" she said.
While he briefly mentioned resolving Detroit's bankruptcy in 2014, Snyder stopped short of publicly calling for state aid to soften cuts to pensions of city retirees and to prevent the sale of pieces at the Detroit Institute of Arts. The governor met privately with legislators this week to suggest that the state match foundations' $330 million commitment.
Snyder also touched on unfinished legislative business, such as increased spending for deteriorating roads and bridges and cracking down on scrap metal theft. But he did not make the stalled transportation legislation a major emphasis as he has in previous years, nor did he mention auto insurance changes he unsuccessfully sought last year.
The governor also highlighted a decline in violent crime in four cities his administration has targeted as part of a public safety initiative. Violent crime in the first 10 months of 2013 was down 30 percent in Flint, 16 percent in Saginaw, 7 percent in Detroit and 6.5 percent in Pontiac.
Near the beginning of his speech, Snyder leveled a half-veiled criticism of anti-gay and anti-Muslim posts that Michigan Republican National Committeeman Dave Agema made on Facebook in the last week. He said people should "work to bring Michiganders together, not divide" them.
Democrat Mark Schauer, Snyder's likely opponent in November's election, questioned Snyder's "comeback" story. He said that more unemployed Michigan residents are filing for jobless benefits than in any other state and a minimum wage increase is needed.
"Rick Snyder's economy isn't working for average Michiganders," Schauer said.