The agenda Gov. John Engler announced Wednesday night in his final State of the State Address was a dramatically less aggressive plan than the one he kicked off almost a year ago in 2001, the theme of which was “The Next Michigan.”
The focus of the 2001 speech was primarily attracting economic development to the state. Like he often does, Engler said Michigan should continue cutting taxes and keeping regulations loose enough so businesses would find the state an attractive place to locate. Improving education was also a topic.
But he also made some other proposals, among them:
n Setting up a system of gubernatorial appointment for justices of the Supreme Court and for appointment of a minority of the members of the governing boards of the state”s three largest universities, including the University of Michigan
n Creating the two departments of History, Arts and the Libraries as well as Information Technology
n Creating a “cybercourt” to specialize in and expedite the resolution of cases involving high technology.
“The quest is on. The New Economy is transforming the old, and a new Michigan is emerging the Next Michigan,” he said.
The Republican governor was criticized at that time by legislative Democrats for ignoring bread and butter issues.
“Before we go to the next we need to deal with the now,” then-House Minority Leader Kwame Kilpatrick said.
But since then, the focus in Lansing has shifted away from some of the “non-essentials,” and the message from Engler”s speech Wednesday night, his last State of the State address, was this: the “now” has changed and the “next” is unknown.
Engler”s final address focused on two things and two things only: security and economic development.
On the issue of protection against terrorism, he urged the Legislature to pass his anti-terrorism bill and asked the federal government to increase the number of officials at Michigan”s borders with Canada.
As for economic development, Engler talked about keeping taxes low, attracting a $1 billion nuclear physics institute to the Michigan State University campus, easing federal regulations for the development of fuel-cell technology to maintain Michigan”s dominance in the auto industry and expanding the public”s access to broadband Internet technology.
There were few mentions of projects such as reforming the judiciary or creating state departments.
Why the more limited focus?
Ed Sarpollus, vice president with the Lansing polling firm EPIC/MRA, said there”s just no more money for additional projects. The state is currently facing a $900 million budget deficit and, considering the downturn in the economy and its impact on revenue, expectations are that most programs will see their funding decreased.
“He”s ignoring the problem that everyone”s talking about by saying, “We”re OK, we”re building for the future,”” Sarpollus said.
Engler had to put a positive spin on things, he added.
“The governor was not going to go to his speech and say we”re going to have to cut education, and we”re going to have to cut this and this and this,” Sarpollus added, saying Engler”s optimistic tone is perfectly legitimate for a governor.
Meanwhile, it seems state Democrats and Republicans will debate Engler”s legacy, like their compatriots in Michigan and around the country debate the legacy of President Ronald Reagan.
“He had 10 years to prepare the state for a recession everyone knew was coming, but we”re suffering just as much as we were in other recessions,” said Mark Brewer, chair of the Michigan Democratic Party.
“If you ask the people of Michigan if they were better off than they were 12 years ago when he took office, they”ll say they are,” said Jason Brewer, communications director for the state Republicans.