Policy Conference progress slow, demanding

October 12, 2009
| By Pete Daly |
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Leadership of the West Michigan Regional Policy Conference made its 12-month progress report last week, revealing some dissatisfaction with its rate of progress and the realization that broad grassroots support is needed to help convince Michigan lawmakers to pull the state out of its economic slump and make it friendly to business.

"We want to change what's been happening (in Michigan), and we need to do it with grassroots support," said Doug DeVos, one of the four leaders. "It's not going to happen because a few people think so. It needs all of us.

"That's why we're building coalitions — to keep that moving," he said.

DeVos spoke to a packed house of more than 350 people at the Economic Club of Grand Rapids luncheon at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel. Also on the leadership dais was Jim Dunlap of Huntington Bank, Peter Secchia of SIBSCO, and Jeff Connolly of Blue Cross Blue Shield. The four presided over the first Policy Conference in Grand Rapids one year ago; the next one will be Sept. 16-17, 2010.

The leadership and the 130-plus people who are volunteer members of the Policy Conference task force are working on five directives that came out of the original conference. More than 650 business and community leaders from throughout the west side of the Lower Peninsula ended that first two-day conference with votes that determined the state government must:

1. Eliminate the Michigan Business Tax with corresponding spending cuts.

2. Implement a right-to-work status for Michigan.

3. Increase funding for health care providers with prevention practices.

4. Streamline the state government business permits process.

5. Update funding mechanisms for the state's transportation infrastructure.

While the past year has clearly given Policy Conference leadership and volunteers a better sense of what they need to do, at one point DeVos said that he wished "we had more progress to report. … But we're not going to give up."

Secchia made a similar comment.

Jeanne Englehart, president/CEO of the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce — which played a key role in the formation of the West Michigan Regional Policy Conference — noted that it is now in partnership with Business Leaders for Michigan, the Lansing Area Economic Partnership, The Right Place, Southwest Michigan First, and several of the larger chambers on the west side of Michigan, including those in Kalamazoo and Traverse City.

The partnership-building was underscored by the attendance of Doug Rothwell of Business Leaders for Michigan, formerly called Detroit Renaissance, which recently proposed similar changes that it says the state government needs to make for Michigan to be viable again.

Rothwell spoke in response to a question from the floor regarding reaction to the Policy Conference proposals in other parts of the state. Receptivity on both sides of the state to the initiative "has been great," he said, but suggested there is "maybe less receptivity in Lansing itself" where, he said, "people are a little nervous that we're upsetting the apple cart."

DeVos hammered away at the theme of grassroots support and development of coalitions to move the Legislature to action. He told several members of the Legislature who were in attendance that the Policy Conference leaders and volunteers "are willing and ready and anxious to work with everybody … across lines." He added that includes "all political parties."

"This report is about Michigan and all of us together. We're not trying to push one agenda over another, or one perspective or one industry over another," said DeVos.

"Business should be involved in the democratic process," said DeVos, but noted that Police Conference leaders have realized that current leaders in the Legislature have been too busy with the ongoing state budget debate to focus on the Policy Conference directives. To that end, said DeVos, their new strategy is to seek out new members of the Legislature who will be tomorrow's leaders.

Another strategy: A form letter is now on the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce Web site, which anyone can edit and send to their state representative and/or senator. The letter is available at www.grandrapids.org/rpc

Dunlap presented what he called a "report card" for the governor and Legislature, which showed three Ds and an E on the five directives during the 2008/2009 "marking period." (The E was regarding the right-to-work status for Michigan.)

He also unveiled a "balance sheet" for Michigan government, showing FY2008 and FY2010 revenues and expenditures for the General Fund/General Purpose accounts plus the School Aid Fund. The source is the Michigan Senate Fiscal Agency State Budget Update of July 27. It shows that the shortfall in FY2008 totaled $1.3 billion; the FY2010 shortfall is estimated at $2.38 billion. Stimulus funds from the federal ARRA are not included, said Dunlap, because "you can't count on that."

"Our checkbook does not balance. We're broke," said Dunlap.

He said the state faces two choices: declare bankruptcy and wait for the next election, or "cut expenses and balance our checkbook."

Dunlap said elimination of the MBT would put Michigan among the top 10 most favorable states in regard to its corporate income tax, basing his comments on a report from the Tax Foundation comparing all the states.

Secchia took aim at the MBT and labor unions. Business owners "are willing to pay our fair share of taxes. This is an unfair tax," said Secchia. "It was designed to help the UAW and the Big Three. The UAW lost membership and the Big Three's gone bankrupt, so what the hell did it accomplish?"

Secchia said the MBT was designed to "hurt developers and builders of business. And where else is there growth but on the west side (of Michigan)? So it was directed toward us."

He criticized by name several Michigan representatives and senators who "all voted for the Michigan Business Tax — an unfair and hated tax."

While taking questions from the audience, one person asked what the state has done to cut expenses. Secchia replied that he had heard the state government had closed 13 penal institutions, but added, "I don't believe we have laid off one employee from that department."

Another person mentioned the directive to make Michigan a right-to-work state, and asked if the Policy Conference leadership had attempted to communicate with the state's largest unions: the Michigan Education Association and the UAW. Dunlap replied that there has been no opportunity to insert that type of dialogue in the political climate in Michigan.

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