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Toward a Michigan policy agenda that prioritizes the actual needs of taxpayers over the perceived desires of corporations

A few months ago, Michigan Future Inc. introduced its first-ever state policy agenda. In it, we argue that rising income for all Michiganders should be the policy goal for Michigan’s leaders and we offer three levers to accomplish that goal: schools from birth through college that are organized around giving students broad, 21st century skills to succeed in college and the workforce; vibrant cities that are attractive to knowledge workers and shared prosperity for families who are unable to meet basic needs because of the changing economy.

Since we’ve released our report, we have spent a lot of time thinking about how to best get our ideas into the platforms of 2018 state candidates. Many people have advised us that the best – and possibly only – way to get momentum for our ideas is by getting buy-in from Michigan business leaders. Truthfully, it seems like our agenda would be an easy sell to the corporate community. While state political leaders have doubled down on tax cuts as the only meaningful strategy for attracting and retaining business, business leaders have long said talent is the most important driver as they make decisions about where to stay and locate.

Michigan Future believes our educational system – from birth through college – should be focused on giving students the very skills that employers say workers need in the modern workplace. These are skills that authors Roberta Michnick Golinkoff and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek have described as “the six Cs”: the ability to collaborate, communicate, think critically, be creative, understand and use content and possess the confidence to execute these skills. While business leaders have repeatedly agreed that these are the skills they look for when they hire, they have been loath to engage in policy debates about K-12 or higher education in Michigan beyond their support for the common core and its reliance on standardized tests.

Meanwhile, the corporate community is radio silent on the other levers in our agenda – placemaking and shared prosperity – even though they know that the talented millennial workers they hope to attract to places like Detroit and Grand Rapids are seeking desirable amenities, services and infrastructure. They also know that automation will so fundamentally change the world of work that there will be many workers who will be unable to find jobs that offer a sustaining wage. Why shouldn’t the business community be engaged in frank discussions about how we address that looming challenge?

In a recent Detroit Free Press column, Nancy Kaffer noted that as online giant Amazon looks to build a second headquarters, southeast Michigan would likely not be a credible candidate because of policy decisions such as our longstanding rejection of adequate transit. While cities like Denver have seen tremendous growth that is directly attributable to the development of transit systems, some leaders in southeast Michigan and Lansing have actively and successfully campaigned against efforts to expand transit here.

It is said that business leaders like Dan Gilbert are now engaged in a full-court press to pitch southeast Michigan and Windsor to Amazon. While it’s heartening to see corporate support for this potentially game-changing project, it sure would be nice to see sustained support for strategies that would make Michigan an organic choice for employers like Amazon.

In a later column, Kaffer listed several other ways that elected leaders have both let down Michigan citizens and made the state less attractive to potential investors:

This is a state in which fewer than half of schoolchildren, those kids in so-called good suburban schools as well as struggling city schools, score proficient in math and reading. This is a state that has bet heavily on sprawl, a bet that is not working out so well. This is a state where our roads are still crumbling, and funds to fix them come from a half-baked legislative deal that will rob other state services. This is a state where cities have been left to languish too long, because too many lawmakers believe that suburbs and exurbs can thrive without strong central cities.
Yeah, our failure to invest in this state — in our infrastructure, our children, our social safety net, our air and water — is a turnoff for business.

Kaffer rightly points out that even when lawmakers attempt to pivot away from destructive policies, it’s only because they get marching orders from business leaders to do so.

So as Michigan Future Inc. pitches our agenda, we will continue to reach out to leaders in the business community with hopes that they will carry our ideas forward to potential candidates. But, as Kaffer says so eloquently, it sure would be nice if legislators would make decisions based on the interests of citizens and not just corporations.

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Kim Trent

Kim Trent is a policy associate for Michigan Future, Inc., a non-partisan, non-profit organization. Michigan Future's mission is to be a source of new ideas on how Michigan can succeed as a world class community in a knowledge-driven economy. She also serves on the Wayne State University Board of Governors and is especially interested in education policy and race, class and gender issues.

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