LANSING (AP) - Gov. Rick Snyder announced a plan Thursday to make Michigan more welcoming to immigrants and enticing for foreign investment, and he also pledged to free up more preschool slots for disadvantaged 4-year-olds during his fourth annual State of the State address.
The initiatives - along with a pilot project for moving some low-performing public schools to a year-round calendar and helping school districts and municipalities detect financial troubles before they need state intervention - were among the highlights of the Republican governor's speech.
Snyder, who is up for re-election in November, touted Michigan's "comeback" during the hour-long address to a joint session of the Legislature in the Capitol, mentioning the auto industry's continued 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.
Snyder committed to seeking an additional $65 million for the Great Start Readiness program so low-income children no longer have to be on a waiting list for financial help to attend preschool. A recent report showed 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 shouldn't have a wait for preschool," the governor said. "We're going to make it a no-wait state for early childhood education."
Snyder also will soon issue an executive order creating the Office for New Americans, joining two other states with immigration services based under one roof in the governor's office.
His administration also has applied to make Michigan the second state government 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.
While he briefly mentioned resolving Detroit's bankruptcy in 2014, Snyder stopped short of 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 on Wednesday and earlier Thursday to float having the state match national and local 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 sought last year in the Capitol. In a twist from his general preference of not telling Congress what to do, the governor called for a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Democrats said that was an appeal to tea party enthusiasts and other conservatives Snyder had rankled with his successful push for an expansion of Medicaid, which takes effect in April.
As expected, Snyder saved many budget-related specifics for his budget proposal, which is three weeks away. He 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.
Democrat Mark Schauer, Snyder's likely opponent in November, questioned Snyder's "comeback" story. He told reporters earlier Thursday that more unemployed Michigan residents are filing for jobless benefits than in any other state. The unemployment rate of 8.8 percent is just slightly lower than a year ago.
"Rick Snyder's economy isn't working for average Michiganders," Schauer said before the speech, citing the governor's failure to embrace a minimum wage increase and his administration's big pay raises to state investment managers. "Rick Snyder's out of touch," he said.