Sak Put Economy On Track

January 30, 2007
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GRAND RAPIDS — Few elementary school teachers decide to run for office, other than, perhaps, for a school board position. And that norm makes Michael Sak a bit unique, because he used to be a teacher and did just that more than 20 years ago.

But Sak, who taught plenty of kids for lots of years in both the local Catholic and public school systems, said he didn't believe there was anything special about having a teacher turn politician, or that there was a particular connection between being in the classroom in Grand Rapids and being on the House floor representing the state's 76th District in Lansing.

"I'm not sure that it had anything to do with being a teacher. I think it was something instilled in me at a young age, that when we are successful, it's critically important — and is our responsibility — to make sure that you should give back to your community," said Sak, who started his third and final term earlier this month.

"And running for public office, no matter what profession you come from, I think it is more or less what you believe that you can do and what is good for the citizens of our community."

So it hasn't been much of a stretch for him to go from relating to 10-year-olds to elected officials who are many times older.

"You want an honest response to that? It was quite similar," he said with a laugh.

"Do I miss teaching? I do miss the children, but I'm still actively engaged in a lot of things that I do as an elected official that lets me stay in close touch with them."

Sak, a former Democratic Assistant Floor Leader, is Speaker Pro Tempore this term and is returning to the powerful House Appropriations Committee. His previous terms have left him with a matching blend of knowledge and understanding of the budgeting process and have prepared him for what will be a very difficult balancing act this fiscal year.

State tax revenues are way below the projections made last year — roughly $500 million less — and that bad news hit home after billions had already been sliced from the state budget.

"We're dealing with such a financial challenge, a significant financial challenge," said Sak.

"The deficit will be close to $850 million for this fiscal year. So there are going to be a lot of significant challenges and spending pressures," he said, while adding that the Single Business Tax has to be replaced with a "fair and equitable" business tax.

As for his top three legislative priorities this term, Sak said those are the economy, the economy and the economy — and in that order. Because of the automakers' struggles, he said the state has to channel its business attention toward other avenues such as alternative fuels, homeland security and advanced manufacturing.

"We have to do everything we can legislatively, everything we can, to make sure we put this economy back on track. We have to retain the jobs we have and create new jobs that can't be downsized or outsourced, which many of our companies do in the state. I want to thank the ones that stayed here.

"We need to focus on all the essential aspects of creating a talented, skilled and educated work force that stays in Michigan and that's done through the educational process to make sure we, during this trying financial time, fund our K-16 at an appropriate level."

Sak said the quality of education he received and the hard work ethic that was instilled in him by his family underline the success he has in his professional life. He said those two factors played key roles in getting him elected to the Kent County Board of Commissioners in 1986, when he was only 27 years old. Sak, a Grand Rapids native and a Democrat, represented a West Side city district on the board for 16 years.

After graduating from UnionHigh School, Sak earned his Associate of Arts degree from Grand RapidsJunior College, now Grand RapidsCommunity College. He finished his undergraduate work with a Bachelor of Arts degree from UtahState. Later he attended GrandValleyStateUniversity where he graduated with a Master's of Education degree.

"I think my work ethic came from my family. There wasn't one specific situation, other than being elected to the Kent County Board of Commissioners, which propelled me to the state House and then as Speaker Pro Tem," he said.

Sak credited not only his mother, Salome, and his late father, Casmir, for teaching him the value of hard work, but he also gave kudos to the rest of his family for helping him get to where he is today.

"When I was brought up, we worked extremely hard to make sure that we got our jobs done. The culture that was in our family was to make sure that you got the job done, because you were responsible for it. It was just a real hard work ethic," he said of his formable years.

"Even today if there is a request to me for assistance or a meeting for me to attend or to speak at some function or event, I try to do everything I can to be there."

Those who know Sak not only see him as a hard-working politician, but also as someone who could be a viable candidate for a perpetual-motion poster boy. Often a blur, even when he is clearly present, Sak always displays a personal energy level that few can imitate, but one that many in his profession try to emulate. Last year, he estimated he racked up about 25,000 frequent-driver miles between here and Lansing and to other locales in the state.

"I'm on the move, I'll tell you that. I never monitor my mileage closely. This summer, obviously, I spent significant amounts of time across the state helping my colleagues so we could take control of the Michigan House of Representatives, which we did, and thanking the citizens of Grand Rapids and West Michigan."

Even in his spare time, Sak likes to move. For leisure, he runs. He also exercises regularly and attends as many fine arts performances, including outdoor festivals, as his busy schedule allows.

"I enjoy the arts. Our cultural institutions continue to play a significant role in our community. All are very important to the community and to me as a whole, in that they improve the quality of our life."

This year and next year are Sak's last two years representing the district. Although he has given some thought to what he will do after 2008, he said he wasn't ready to say what it will be just yet, because his mind is on another matter.

"In my profession, you have to look at all areas — and there are options out there to look at — and there have been some discussions," he said about his immediate future.

"But right now the only focus that I have is making sure we return Michigan back to where we were, by retaining jobs, creating jobs and growing this economy. That is the most important focus and objective that I have at this time. Everything else is secondary."    

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