The West Michigan Regional Policy Conference closed Friday with a vote that sharply divides two views of our situation in Michigan. Asked to rate possible issues from one to ten, attendees listed the following as thier top five, according to The Grand Rapids Press.
8.65 Eliminate Michigan Business Tax and make corresponding spending cuts.
8.08 Implement a Right to Work status for the state of Michigan.
7.58 Increase funding for health care provers with effective prevention practices.
6.81 Streamline the state’s permitting practices
6.34 Update funding mechanisms for transportation infrastructure
On one hand we had the ongoing political agenda of the business community: elimination of taxes, establishment of Michigan as a Right to Work state. And against that there were continuing questions being posed, often in the same working papers, regarding the steps Michigan and especially West Michigan should take for the future. Issues of training, education, revision of governance, and repair of infrastructure.
Politically, this presents a dilemma. There exists only so much political capital, only so much energy to go around. So a five point agenda is really something of a zero-sum game. Which big bruising battle do you pick up? Right to Work? Business Tax revision? More money for Schools? Funding a infrastructure repair (an estimated aditional $3 billion annual price tag)? Any one of those battles will prove exhausting, all the more with a Legislature controlled by the Democrats.
But this is not simply a vote on politics, or a Lansing agenda. It is deeply, a statement about how the business community understands its current situation. Some proposed agenda items are grounded in policies of Continuity. Changing the tax code is one such policy. Another would be Right to Work legislation; behind it exists the unstated assumption that business is essentially functioning well, thatthe problem isthat of containing labor costs. The corollary, that Right to Work would change outside perception makes the same assumption: there’s nothing wrong with Michigan that one more another heavy manufacturing facility wouldn’t cure (leaving aside that the biggest impact of Right to Work would be in the public service sector).
But what if this assumption of continuity, that things are basically all right, is wrong?
That’s the second policy option: Transformation. The renewed emphasis on education and training; the recognition that Michigan needs to invest an additional $3 billion for infrastructure repair, the increasing role of healthcare and bio sciences – these are all policies of transformation, of moving Michigan’s economy away from its industrial, auto-centric past. One path to that future can be seen in Dow Chemical’s transformation. There are more, as our own Medical Mile testifies.
But all these possibilities finally depend on the creation of an educated work force. The working papers for the Conference outline the difficulty of this path ahead. The transformation of Michigan’s economy and with it, the equipping of our region to compete globally will take the investment of substantial political energy as well as the commitment of significant financial and community resources. As study after study has shown, we have yet to make education part of our culture.
This decision to pursue continuity or transformation was captured by Grand Valley State University president Thomas Haas: “Do we want want to be more like Alabama and Mississippi, or more like Minnesota and Massachusetts? Research shows that prosperity that’s spread over a community follows degrees.”