I recently attended the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce’s Mackinac Policy Conference. It’s an annual event where elected officials and business leaders around the state converge for three days of policy discussions, networking and fudge on Mackinac Island. I coined a phrase this year to describe what it really is: Schmoozapalooza.
In all seriousness, though, it is important to find out occasionally what’s on the minds of policymakers and business leaders and there are few places as easy to do some comparison thought-shopping than on an island.
Edsel Ford II (yes, from that Ford family), presented a report from the One D initiative about collaboration in Southeast Michigan and how those efforts are progressing. I’d say not too well based on Mr. Ford’s comment that “it’s time for some tough talk for those who have not been able to move past the baggage of the past.” He had a top 10 list of things that make leaders good collaborators and I think it’s safe to say that most of the leaders in Southeast Michigan wouldn’t be able to check off even half of the list for themselves. “Stubborn silos in our region are holding us back from recreating ourselves,” Ford said. He then encouraged the regional leaders about to come on stage after him for an annual panel discussion to make it “less about theatrics this year.” The panel traditionally consists of the top elected official from Oakland, Wayne and Macomb counties and the city of Detroit. We also had the CEO of a bank on there this year to bring a business perspective into the discussion.
In the picture below, you can see Detroit Mayor Dave Bing (foreground), Wayne County Executive Bob Ficano (leaning forward) and Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson as they were listening to Ford’s report.
A question from host Paul W. Smith of WJR 760 AM about collaboration resulted in an awkward silence, one that lasted long enough for Smith to say, “Well, don’t everyone jump in to answer at once.” When the leaders did answer, you got a mixed response. Wayne County Executive Bob Ficano said the old silos don’t exist and the region is competing as one entity against the world. Of course, that didn’t stop the city of Warren from trying to convince General Motors to move its headquarters there instead of staying in downtown Detroit. And Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson may have had the quote of the conference when he said he would always put the interests of his county first, but that he fully supports regionalism. That would be an interesting magic trick to see, wouldn’t it?
On the statewide agenda, several leaders of the Michigan Senate and House were on a panel that got some instant feedback from their audience, which used clickers to vote on issues.
The first question had to do with balancing the state budget, and 96 percent of the audience said federal stimulus money should be used for job creation rather than balancing the state budget. Speaker of the House Andy Dillon said his “preference” would be to use the federal stimulus money for job creation. He didn’t say he would or could though. And Sen. Mark Jansen noted that using the federal money for the state budget just creates a big cliff that the state will fall off of someday. Newsflash: if the cliff we’re on were any higher, we’d all have nosebleeds, considering next year’s budget is in the red by about $2 billion.
The other issues discussed at the legislative panel included charter schools, how to fix our roads, term limits and job creation.
Fifty-eight percent of the audience felt that failing public schools should be turned into charters. Sen. Jansen asked why we should wait until they are failing. Sen. Mike Prusi said he doesn’t see charter schools as a punishment but also don’t believe they are some kind of magical panacea. As for Michigan’s roads, Dillon said his first priority is to end Michigan’s status as a donor state, which means we send more federal gas-tax money to Washington than we get in return. There seemed to be support from the Republicans and the Democrats on the panel for increasing road taxes somehow, but I didn’t get the sense that they know whether they could get the votes for it. Dillon did mention that if we don’t address the issue in Michigan by the end of 2009, we risk losing federal money because we won’t have state money available for matching funds.
Part of the problem with getting anything done, Prusi would argue, is term limits. He said term limits have “completely polarized the population in the Legislature.” A good percentage of people in the audience agreed, voting to have some change made to extend term limits.
Finally, the big question of the day was asked of the legislators: how does Michigan create more jobs? The answers ran the gamut, but here are their main ideas: economic diversification, job training, faster government reactions (for permits, etc.), improved education infrastructure and a simpler business tax.
There was a question raised during the conference several times and afterward by folks who wondered why there wasn’t a sense of urgency by policymakers for dealing with Michigan’s problems. I’ve been to a few of these conferences and I’ve never really seen or felt any sense of urgency. Maybe it’s because when you’re on an island where horse and buggies are still the primary method of transportation, it’s too easy to say, “See, we’ve already come such a long way – what’s the hurry now?”