Windmillin'

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Where politics and faith dance in the shadow of the windmill.

Revenge of RTW

For a measure “with no organized opposition” as the press would have it, Prop 1 has sure stirred up the activist community. Until very recently, most of the opposition was through the com boxes at Michigan Radio or at the Bridge. There, one could almost see the opposition coalescing, with talking points emerging, links to the relevant analyses expounded, and a growing conviction that this was more about special interests than With the election tomorrow, it is useful to locate where the opposition to Prop 1 lies.

Overtly, the opposition has focused on what are essentially unfunded aspects, the $500 million finally needed, repurposed from expiration of business tax credits. The non-partisan Citizens Research Council summarizes the impact thus

The reimbursement provisions contained in the package are not cheap, and the State of Michigan will forego an increasing amount of its general fund/general purpose revenue in future years in order to hold local governments harmless from the PPT reforms.

But the approach of lost opportunity costs, or even of the independent authority that is part of the measure as implemented per Public Act 80 — even this does not quite capture the emotional quality of the objection. For some it is ambivalence as to the substance but a caution about the vagueness of the drafting of the proposal. Elsewhere it is a more direct distrust of the Legislature. This is even true of those who modestly favor the measure as the best of a bad deal. As one elected official in that camp expressed it

local governments (and those of us who utilize their services) are significantly screwed if this doesn’t pass and it goes back to Lansing. I have no confidence that they will come up with anything close to this.

Whether as ambivalence or distrust the common theme is that of wariness. And for others it is a far sharper sense.

The Legislature and the Governor (and to a certain extent their corporate backers such as the Chamber) are seen as not trustworthy. The validation and championing of the measure by  Sen. Gretchen Whitmer, gubernatorial candidate Mark Schauer and  cities up and down the state gain little traction. And that lack of traction almost certainly rests with the lame duck session of 2012.

The possibility of bipartisanship had existed with a tacit agreement that the Governor would establish certain fundamental limits to the actions of the staunch Right. It came with an implied agreement that Democrats would be willing to join in some of the Governor’s proposals over against the staunch Right. It was as much a commitment about process and voice as it was over content.

The RTW legislation upended that. Decisively. It was a victory, however, that came at a price of alienation. The vote for Prop 1 appears to be a ratification of the very coalition that won RTW (and proclaimed it, too, as job creating measure). The business community gains, but the tax burden shifts to the individual tax payer.

There are few places where voters can really voice their displeasure at the corporate mindedness that has dominated state government for the past for years. Prop 1 gives them just that opportunity.

 

 

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Filed under: Elections, Michigan, , , , , , , ,

Showdown in the Motor CIty

While I’m here doing schoolwork and chores, Democrats from across the state are meeting (and voting at this hour)  to elect a chair. And by all accounts, the battle should be a doozy. Certainly the campaign has been intense with both incumbent Mark Brewer and challenger Lon Johnson sending out numerous pleas, as well as motivating their forces. This has already been covered on numerous blogs and posts, perhaps most consistently at Michigan Liberal.

While the battle has been fierce, the issue is finally less about the individuals than the shape of the Party. The painful truth of 2012 is the political weakness, first with the  defeat of Prop 2 and then the lame duck enacting of RTW and other questionable legislation.  The tools to challenge or impede this were noticeably missing. Add to it the  resignation of Supreme Court Justice Diane Hathaway (and her subsequent conviction), and we have a Party that for all its national strength has not found the a way to translate that into state-wide leadership.

The failure is strategic. it does not rest on the shoulders of a single individual, nor can one blame the UAW, that favorite whipping boy of so many. The problems are more structural in nature, something that Johnson caught sight of in his interview on Eclectablog:

This is a very different state structure-wise than any other state that I’ve worked in and I’ve worked in a lot of ‘em.

In what way? What do you mean by that? How is it different?
Institutions play a larger role, without a doubt.

You’re talking unions, in general?
I’m talking unions. I’m talking other groups. We have a respect for institutions. I think our party does and our party activists, not only do they play a larger role, but we see the value in institutions because there is a great value in them. We are a better party because of it.

What has certainly happened is that the balancing and politics of various institutional forms has handicapped the ability of the Dems to field strong state-wide candidates. Without strong leadership on top, it makes the electoral challenge of turning out low-information voters. And this is the strategic question at its core: how do Dems as a whole combine to think in terms of winning the off-year.

On this strategic question, neither the incumbent nor the challenger have suggested any real solutions.

From the Brewer camp has come an emphasis on redistricting as the culprit. Redesigned seats could give one or more congressional seats and perhaps a majority in the State House, but this would do nothing about the core failing in terms of winning state-wide, or of better mobilizing generally in off-years.

For Johnson, the focus has been on the adoption of campaign techniques from OFA, and in particular on the focus on expanding the base to the young, minority, women and low-income. In one sense this is the future, particularly the social media aspects of the outreach. Nonetheless, if the institutional silos remain, the problem of actually mounting winning statewide offices will still be significant.

No matter who wins in this hour, one fact will be true: Michigan Democrats cannot go on as they have.

Update

When it came time, Mark Brewer withdrew his name, leaving only Lon Johnson. The strategic questions remain.

 

Filed under: Democratic Party, , , , , ,

Pure Folly

On one level, you couldn’t really blame them. It seemed like such a natural: a chance to do the victory lap and reinforce the Michigan brand.

So they put it up for all to see, there in the Wall Street Journal: Pure Michigan, now RTW.

rtw_pure_fullad

And really, who can blame them? The Pure Michigan campaign has created a solid brand for the State. Why not use it, then, to piggyback an emotional punch to the political? As brand experts have been pulling out their hair in protest, such a move lacks strategic and economic sense. It is sloppy and it puts Michigan’s second industry, tourism, at risk.

On one hand the cost of the ad, the brag of  $144,000 is more a vanity than a pitch and so unlikely to generate much business. Certainly the numbers look that way. By its own accounting, the Pure Michigan has generated a billion in new business. In contrast, what does the direct RTW pitch get its backers?  Perhaps not a lot, if we look at Indiana, certainly not anything on the order of the billion dollar revenue. To the extent that such a stunt jeopardizes the larger, successful campaign, it can hardly be called wise.

But are things really in that sort of danger?

In making Right to Work a business calling card it brands the state as surely as the tourism campaign. As with all partisanship, this political edginess gets in the way of the State’s competition for tourist dollars. It’s a conundrum, the more successful the State is in establishing this partisan identity  the more it risks alienating a portion of the market. Some will find the right wing turn sufficiently distasteful and so spend those dollars elsewhere. This degrading represents a real business risk.

Now this risk will ease over time, but not entirely. Had MEDC kept the campaign separate, it could negotiate the partisan blowback with continuing with tourism advertising. After all it works with the white sands of Alabama and Texas. And here is  the real problem with the RTW/Pure Michigan play: it creates a disincentive with the audience while at the same time robbing the tourism bureau of one of its tools.

Finally, if RTW is the game-changer they claim, that it changes the “product” so to speak, then it would be far better to craft a distinctive advertising message of its own. Here the ad reveals the ambiguity Lansing. Is this really a game changer, per the advocates? Or something like business as usual? How big is the rift? That Lansing and MEDC would turn to the Pure Michigan theme suggests a viewpoint that believes this will not be a move of continuity rather than disruption. It is a view of hope and unwarranted optimism.

Filed under: Economy, Michigan, , , , , ,

The dog that didn’t bark

A short note about last week’s Policy Forum: unlike four years ago, Right to Work was not on the table.

Perhaps we will put it down to the shift of the economy. In a seemingly prosperous time, RtW seemed like a natural; in these grimmer times, less so. But also, we may think of it as another indication of a walking back from GOP extremism. Granted, this is not something to hold one’s breath over, but that other items should take priority suggests that attendees were in fact thinking strategically.

After all, were there one measure to block the growth of W Michigan it would be that of RtW.

Still local businessmen have had a hankering for it, like some long-lost high school love. But examined closely, and the difficulties arise; this is no beauty. In fact, it is a recipe for more of the same, as Peter Secchia notes,

“A lot of companies don’t come here because they perceive Michigan as a rustbelt of union activity and that isn’t the case anymore,”

What he sees is a W Michigan that continues with the same old manufacturing base. More of the same, only better. But it is difficult to see how the future belongs to the older economy.While manufacturing will continue to play a major role in the economy, the real growth will lie elsewhere, that’s why the Chamber’s Jared Rodriguez rightly cited the need for talent retention.

Two items are at stake for West Michigan’s future. Will the region be prepared to participate in a new and transformed economy — this is where talent retention and education play such a critical role. And second, what will be the brand, the image the region brings to the world. A community that steadfastly clings to the old ways is far less likely to be seen on the cutting edge. And that’s the real danger of RtW — it’s not its impact on business recruitment, or even in its ability to hold down wages (dubious as that is) — it is simply that declares fealty to an older way of business (the Way We’ve Always Done It, actually in W Michigan).

A successful push for RtW would certainly make the region “safer” for current small businesses, but it would also leave them out of the competition for the real economic growth of the 21st Century.

So for once, they chose well. Our region’s growth depends on the motivation and participation of all its stakeholders; cooperation  is far better than that of needless wrangling. Far better.

 

 

Filed under: Economy, , , ,

Longing for the return of the Buffalo

A generation ago Michigan (and midwestern) industrial policy faced two challenges: off shoring and increased union militancy.  That legacy lives on.

Sunday, The Grand Rapids Press began its series on how to bring Michigan back, and initially, some of the solutions seem, well, old.  Apparently to read the thoughts of industrialists, our problem is that of labor policy.  As the comment board at the Press quickly made clear, that was understood as making Michigan a Right to Work (RTW) state.  Some of this arises from the loss of a Toyota plant in Grand Rapids, a fault laid at the feet of the UAW; some part too, comes from an older history of militancy, particularly during the Yokich years. It was not just the militants at Delphi, but a longer narrative of union activity in our state.   And practically speaking, it is the legacy of union pensions, and union-won healthcare — this economic overhang — that left domestic automakers with a burden.

The complaint in short, is that the unions have cost the state opportunity.  Thus, no unions, more growth.  Two observations however should temper this easy (too easy!) manner of thinking.

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Filed under: Economy, , , ,

Continuation or Transformation?

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.”

Filed under: Economy, Michigan, , , ,

Mob Wisdom

Put 600 business leaders in a room for two days and what do you get?

Well if you’re in West Michigan and at the Regional Policy Conference, you get this:

(P)articipants set these top five priorities for legislative action:

1. Eliminate Michigan Business Tax and corresponding spending cuts.

2. Implement a Right to Work status for the state of Michigan.

3. Increase funding for health care providers with effective prevention practices.

4. Streamline the state’s permitting process.

5. Update funding mechanisms for transportation infrastructure.

This is the politics of the dead end, the politics of rage. It will not restore our State or for that matter safeguard their businesses.

For Democrats, it means we will continue to look opposing candidates who are quite simply, out of touch with the economic needs of our region. Without a positive agenda for the State, they offer little in terms of the way out. I will keep banging the drum, but now is the time for leadership, for a positive future.

And though I seldom (have I ever?) agree with him, Richard DeVos Sr. had it right when he said,

“Stop dreaming somebody’s going to come to town and build us a new factory,” he said. “It’s going to come from here, and we are going to make it happen.”

That’s actually an agenda Democrats can seize.

Cross posted at West Michigan Rising.

Filed under: Economy, Michigan, , ,

True Religion

Mackinac on the Grand (our West Michigan Regional Policy Conference) opened with the official sermon from one Dr. Robert Genetski. As reported in The Press, he presented the old time religion: the problem Michigan is facing is due to no other reason than economic perfidy of Lansing, a failure to follow through on conservative economic principles.

And like any good preacher, he had the remedy for it as well, a swearing off of the bottle. Quit. Cold turkey.

“Tinkering around with this business tax is not going to send any significant message. Real action is to eliminate this tax entirely, sending a clear message to the rest of the world that we have changed our economic process here.”

Basically, he suggests that we burn down our own garage to prove we mean business — the act proves the purity of our intention. If this elevation of purity and creed over pragmatic engagement sounds vaguely familiar here in West Michigan, it should. This is the sectarian thought world. Generally around here we know enjoy the sects of a religious kind. The anti-tax creed of the economic radicals that so grips the Michigan Republican Party is only an economic version of the same. No one should be surprised that Dr. Genetski now lives in Allegan County.

But there was more to the true religion, Thursday.

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Filed under: Economy, Michigan, , , , , , ,

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