Shaken Awake The New Michigan

March 20, 2006
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The symposium hosted last week at the University of Michigan by "think-and-do tank" The Center for Michigan founder and business leader Philip Power was reportedly momentous for its audience of college and university dignitaries, Michigan's best and brightest business elite, economists and municipal leaders. As it turned out, it was momentous for the education it provided its attendees.

The conference, "Where Do We Go From Here? An Agenda-setting Conference for the Economic Issues Facing Michigan," put commonly held perceptions of Michigan upside down, and was likely the shake to awake those who are in position to lead change. The troubling aspect of the conference was, as Grand Rapids City Manager Kurt Kimball said, "One thing that was kind of sad: this is a pretty erudite group … but they were surprised at many things that they learned. That tells us how far we have to go in terms of getting the word out about what the real issues are."

One common thread among the group: They care very much about the state and believe it is positioned or can be positioned to be an economic role model for the rest of the nation, an attribute currently buried in state history. But progress in the new Michigan millennium will be based on a set of accurate facts, and most them startle the business community. As shown in the recent study conducted by Western Michigan University President Judith Bailey, an educated work force is far higher on the wish list of new economy companies than is tax structure, and in fact, Michigan's tax burden is considered "manageable" when compared to other states. Michigan's high school graduation rate is far higher than other states, but getting them into college is a problem. And that's requirement No. 1.

As University of Michigan Director of the Center for Local, State and Urban Policy Elisabeth Gerber noted, "We need to come to terms with the fact that we are deep in this knowledge economy." Indeed the Michigan Life Sciences corridor is lacking future employees: students seeking higher education in the sciences, its life-blood.

Revenue replacement from the loathed Single Business Tax, should it be changed or eliminated, centers on extending the sales tax to the service sector, and with broader scope, reduce the state's 6 percent sales tax rate. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research and the university economists emphasize it makes the tax less of a burden to low-income individuals, and identifies the new economy sector, creating sound economic policy.

Power plans to create an agenda from the findings of last week's conference. The Center for Michigan proposes to bring the business community across the state together to help create a long-term strategic agenda based on the new realities, and Grand Rapids Business Journal encourages participation from the "can do" community on the West coast. The conference was co-sponsored by the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy and Center for Local, state and Urban Policy at University of Michigan.    

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