Despite all the politicking, posturing and partying on Mackinac Island last week at the annual policy conference hosted by the Detroit Regional Chamber, it remains unclear whether Michigan’s leaders have any sense of the seriousness of the issues the state now faces. The biting partisanship that epitomizes state government doesn’t just paralyze our leaders, it discourages any discussion or action regarding the changes needed to ensure that Michigan’s transition away from its industrial past leads not to obsolescence but to prosperity in the emerging knowledge-based economy. Michigan’s citizens would benefit greatly if their leaders would downplay politics as usual and instead cooperate to find sensible solutions to the state’s problems. One place to start is with the ideas that the Center for Michigan advocates.
The brainchild of Phil Power, a former member of the University Board of Regents, the recently created Center for Michigan bills itself as a politically moderate “think-and-do” tank. Its goal is to motivate discussion of and support for the reasonable things state government can do to help reverse Michigan’s long economic decline. The center’s steering committee includes a number of renowned names, including Metro Times columnist Jack Lessenberry and former University Provost Paul Courant, whose thoughtful suggestions for the state’s future deserve more attention from the elected leadership.
The Center for Michigan is important in part because of its commitment to find moderate policies that can generate bipartisan support. That’s refreshing, because an age of inexperienced, term-limited state legislators elected from districts gerrymandered along narrow partisan lines has frozen practically all significant motions in Lansing. Consider the squabbling over how to replace the Single Business Tax, for instance, or the endless, meaningless proxy battles in the nation’s culture war that Republicans in the state legislature send to Gov. Jennifer Granholm for a predictable veto.
On the need for expanded access to higher education, on the importance of keeping educated young adults from fleeing Michigan and above all on the reality that the state will need more than its traditional manufacturing base if it is ever to return to economic prosperity, the Center for Michigan has the right ideas. Undoubtedly, there will be particular issues on which the Center’s positions are perhaps too moderate for this page’s taste. Still, anything that can get the state’s leaders to rise above the demands of their extreme bases, whether on the left or the right, to move the state’s economy into the current century is a change worth making.
The Center held a conference of state leaders in March and recently named former Detroit Free Press reporter John Bebow as its executive director. Hopefully Bebow can generate the intellectual and political backing needed for the legislature to reverse the hostility with which it has regarded state university funding in recent years – a hostility needlessly inflamed by misleading press reports such as Bebow’s own article, “Big waste found at state universities.” A highly educated workforce will be a crucial component of Michigan’s economic revival. Even under Bebow’s leadership, the Center for Michigan must help convince the state’s leaders to increase the state’s investment in the human capital upon which its economic future will be built.