Talk must yield firm results

September 23, 2008
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The Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce brought together a business community representing the entire West Michigan region, plus policymakers and business leaders from across the state and out of state, to determine the most pressing issues facing this changed economy.

Change is the operative word, and it became obvious last week that legislative officials still don’t hear it (as in: we’re talking about you), let alone understand it.

The extreme frustration with the state legislature by those attending the West Michigan Regional Policy Conference was apparent from the genesis of its planning — and was certainly represented throughout the two days of conference discussions. It boiled up to become the only point during a session on governance late Thursday.

Conference attendees throughout the day had been part of presentations reiterating what many of them already know and have experienced regarding a flat world and centers of economic success. National and regional speakers were specific in outlining the changes affecting this economy and in providing varied ideas for problem solving.

To the credit of the conference planners, divergent points of view were represented. West Michigan’s Big Three furniture makers, for the first time, sat together on the stage and pinpointed policy issues that impede or debilitate their success. Leaders from Haworth, Herman Miller and Steelcase, which together manufacture 40 to 50 percent of all office furniture worldwide, took the time to plan the presentation … and they were precise.

The panel members who opened the session on governance were equally precise, and represented the Center for Michigan “think and do tank” and the Mackinac Center, along with the leader of the historic unification of the governments of Louisville and Jefferson County, who is currently leading government mergers in a number of states. The panel was precise about what has changed and what must still change.

Center for Michigan founder Phil Power told the group: “If we keep doing what we’ve always done, we will fail. We need accountability and bipartisan leadership in the (Michigan) legislature. Our legislature needs to be effective and efficient.”

The business leaders in the audience understood it; the local government officials from throughout West Michigan understood it. Former state Sen. Ken Sikkema still does not, nor did his former compatriots who showed up for a legislative reception on the heels of the vote on Michigan’s energy legislation. Sikkema, in fact, became a target for the group, which noted that his legacy was to kill the Single Business Tax in the wee hours of a legislative morning and replace it with the reviled Michigan Business Tax. The ensuing exchange between business leaders and Sikkema provided some venting of the aforementioned frustration, but did not appear to be taken seriously by the state legislators in attendance. Conference planner and former Perrigo chief Michael Jandernoa capably took charge of the two-hour session and led the group to identify the five most important issues: remove barriers and create rewards for local governments to consolidate services; repeal or modify state term limits; elect honest, visionary le
aders; set the benchmark for public pay and benefits; eliminate the Michigan Business Tax and cut state spending.

The world has changed. Business owners know it, constituents have lived it, and local leaders are shepherding it. If legislators continue to believe that change has not come for them, the policy conference ought to be the writing on their wall. Business leaders are certainly of the will to follow through.

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