Sign-up under way for 2010 West Michigan Policy Forum

August 13, 2010
| By Pete Daly |
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The buzz has begun about the second West Michigan Policy Forum, slated for September. Adding to the excitement this time is the fact that it’s a gubernatorial election year.

“Michigan won’t recover until the annual budget mess in Lansing is fixed,” said Jared Rodriguez, senior vice president of Government Affairs at the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce and lead organizer of the West Michigan Policy Forum.

“It’s critical to take a hard look at state budget and spending priorities and offer different perspectives on how the business community can drive state government toward a more sustainable future.”

The Sept. 16-17 conference at DeVos Place Convention Center in downtown Grand Rapids will feature speakers including William Clay Ford Jr., executive chairman of Ford Motor Co.; Brian Wesbury, economic forecaster and chief economist at First Trust Advisors LP; and Michael Fleming, president of the American Chamber of Commerce Executives.

The Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce played a key role in organizing the first West Michigan Regional Policy Conference in September 2008. Led by co-chairs Doug DeVos of Amway, Jim Dunlap of Huntington Bank, former ambassador Peter Secchia, and Jeff Connolly of Blue Cross Blue Shield, more than 650 business and community leaders from throughout the western half of the Lower Peninsula ended that first two-day conference with votes that determined the state government must:

  • Eliminate the Michigan Business Tax with corresponding spending cuts.

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

  • Increase funding for health care providers with prevention practices.

  • Streamline the state government business permits process.

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

More than 50 business and community leaders from across the state now serve on the Policy Forum steering committee, including Doug Rothwell of Business Leaders for Michigan.

Over the last two years, Policy Forum volunteers have been trying to get the state’s House and Senate to embrace the recommended policy changes deemed necessary to turn the state’s economy around.

Rodriguez said progress has been made on all five directives, “but nothing has really reached the governor’s desk.” He noted, for example, that bills were introduced to eliminate the Michigan Business Tax completely, and to eliminate the surcharge added to it after it was first passed. So far, those bills have gone nowhere.

“Quite frankly, the tax environment in Michigan is still unpredictable and very costly for individual citizens and working families, as well as for the business community and those that are trying to provide jobs,” said Rodriguez.

“We still have issues between our friends in labor and the business community,” although he noted there was a vote on the subject of Right to Work in the Michigan House, “which in my mind was a victory” because, he said, gubernatorial candidates are talking about that issue. On Friday morning, Sept. 17, there will be a 90-minute event called “Meet the Gubernatorial Candidates.”

As for fixing the funding mechanism for the state’s highway infrastructure, “Nothing has been done thus far,” said Rodriguez.

“While we do see lots of orange barrels along our highways and roadways, there is still a lack of funding in Michigan. We were ranked last, if you look at all Midwest states, in funding transportation and infrastructure.”

Several bills were introduced “but nothing has passed both the Senate and the House and been presented on the governor’s desk — and that’s the main concern, at this point.”

Still, the largest concern of the Policy Forum is elimination of the Michigan Business Tax, said Rodriguez, emphasizing the second part of the directive: “with the corresponding spending cuts.”

“Something we haven’t quite seen, either, is true structural reform — budget reform — in Lansing. It seems as though the Legislature continues to try to implement one-time fixes so that they can continue to kick the can down the road to the future administration and legislature to take care of,” he said.

“I don’t predict anything happening between the primary and the general election,” said Rodriguez. He added that he doubts “anything will really happen in the lame duck session, either, because it will be somebody else’s problem in 2011.”

On health care, Rodriguez said he thinks “we’re taking steps back.” The strained budget situation in Michigan has led to some targeting the state’s share of funding Medicaid, which Rodriguez said targets our “most vulnerable population.”

“Now we have to try to figure out what to do with the national health care movement and how that’s going to impact the public, the providers, and how that’s going to impact employers.”

On streamlining the state permitting process, Policy Forum leadership feels there is still “some duplication of efforts” in Michigan by the state and federal governments. As one example, Rodriguez cited the state MIOSHA agency and the federal OSHA. Another example he gave is management of wetlands in the state, which involves both the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment and the federal Environmental Protection Agency. In 48 states, he said, that function is left to the EPA alone.

Rodriguez said Meijer Inc. CEO Mark Murray will lead the last forum session on the first afternoon of the two-day event, entitled Michigan's Budget & Spending Priorities. Another name for that session, according to Rodriguez, is “Balancing Michigan’s Checkbook.” Murray will moderate a panel discussion that will include a comparative analysis of Michigan’s finances with other Midwest states. The panelists are Jeffery Guilfoyle, president of Citizens Research Council; Lou Glazer, president of Michigan Future Inc.; and Joseph Lehman, president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

In Michigan’s 2010 election season, Rodriguez said, what to do about the state budget is the overarching issue. After years of declining revenue for state government and “unsustainable patches used to fill budget gaps,” the West Michigan business community is poised to “sound off” on the budget issue.

Keynote speakers at the Thursday night dinner will be political satirists Mo Rocca and P.J. O’Rourke (see story, Page 4).

William Clay Ford Jr. will speak at the closing luncheon.

Registration for the Policy Forum during August is $525 for members of the chambers in Grand Rapids, Holland, Kalamazoo, Muskegon, Grand Haven, Traverse City and Saginaw County. Fees increase for registration after August. Early registration ended July 31.

Rodriguez said on Aug. 2 that slightly more than 300 people had signed up so far.

“I think we’re doing very well, compared to where we were at this time in 2008 — and especially given the economic situation. Some things have changed,” he said.

For more information, see www.grandrapids.org/policyforum

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