Economic Development and Government

Snyder challenges business at WMPF

September 15, 2012
| By Pete Daly |
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The third biennial West Michigan Policy Forum wrapped up Thursday with an address by Gov. Rick Snyder — an appropriate appearance, in view of the fact the organization was created four years ago to let state government know what policies West Michigan business is for and against.

Former Gov. Jennifer Granholm was invited to the 2008 and 2010 conferences but did not attend.

More than 600 individuals attended the two-day conference in downtown Grand Rapids last week, representing more than a dozen chambers of commerce across the state as well as the Michigan Chamber, several economic development agencies and Business Leaders For Michigan.

One issue on which the WMPF focuses is the state educational system, in connection with the serious lack of highly trained workers for thousands of unfilled high-tech jobs in industry across the state.

Snyder agreed that work-force preparation is “something we need to work on” to enable the state to build a strong, lasting economy. But he said there has not been enough attention drawn to it and told the conference, “We are not getting enough input yet from the private sector.”

“We need more leadership from the private sector,” in future work-force development, he added.

He also said that for years, there has not been enough collaboration between business, government and higher education: “We messed up over the last 20, 30, 40 years.”

Snyder said the talent search in Michigan is a supply and demand problem, and he announced two events coming next year that can shed light on the situation. One is an economic summit in the winter that should reveal more accurately the actual demand for highly trained workers, followed by the governor’s education summit in April, at which one focus can be on the supply.

Michigan is “the comeback state among comeback states,” said Snyder. “(But) where we are is not good enough. My greatest fear is that we will go backwards.”

In commenting on the appropriate role for government in Michigan, Snyder said it is “not to be an ATM machine.” Government is “a customer service business, and you are our customer,” he said. When a Michigan resident looks at his tax bill, he said, the question should be: “Do you feel good” about the amount of government it has paid for?

Members of the WMPF board, including Jim Dunlap of Huntington Bank, said during the two-day conference the organization is still very committed to achieving the goals it set four years ago.

The five directives set by the members at the 2008 conference were: elimination of the Michigan business tax with corresponding government budget cuts; implement a right-to-work law in Michigan; increase funding for health care providers with effective prevention practices; streamline the government permits process; and update funding mechanisms for transportation infrastructure.

The elimination of the old state business tax was achieved with the election of Snyder two years ago, but the other goals are still unaccomplished, with right-to-work and a new International Trade Crossing between Michigan and Windsor high priorities.

On the first day of this year’s conference, four speakers, including WMPF board member Peter Secchia, spoke at length on the need for a right-to-work law, with emphasis on Indiana having just passed that legislation and the subsequent risk of new companies locating there rather than in Michigan. National economic data showed Indiana made some job gains after passage of the initiative.

Snyder did not address right-to-work in his presentation but told members of the news media afterward “it is not on my agenda” because it is “divisive.” He also noted that he engages in collective bargaining with state employees. However, Snyder is opposed to the Protect Our Jobs ballot proposal, a union-backed initiative to amend the constitution to include a right to collective bargaining in the state.

“I call that the Back in Time Proposal,” quipped Snyder, stating it would roll back Michigan labor law to the 1960’s status quo.

The proposed International Trade Crossing — a new bridge to create an additional “highway” into international markets near the current Ambassador Bridge — received loud cheers Wednesday after remarks by several speakers, including Wolverine World Wide CEO Blake Krueger and Roy Norton, consul general at the Canadian consulate in Detroit.

Norton said Michiganders should vote no on The People Should Decide ballot proposal, which requires an approval vote by Michigan residents before the state can construct a new international bridge or tunnel for motor vehicles — even though Snyder already has Canadian agreement to fund all bridge construction in exchange for collecting all tolls in years to come.

“Show that you won’t be held hostage by cynical, manipulative and greedy private interests,” said Norton, at which point the cheers erupted. He was referring to Manuel “Matty” Maroun, whose family owns the Ambassador Bridge and is paying millions for advertising in support of the ballot proposal.

The Ambassador Bridge has been described as a choke point for commercial transportation between Windsor and Detroit, which will only get worse as Michigan manufacturing continues to grow.

“Your state is on the move. We can see it. So should you,” said Norton.

Krueger said Wolverine World Wide sends about 800 truckloads of footwear over the Ambassador Bridge every year, stressing the importance of trade with Canada and a more efficient ITC at Detroit. The conference also heard from Marge Potter of Continental Rail Gateway, which would be enlarging the rail tunnel under the Detroit River to accommodate the higher rail cars in use today. She said if Maroun’s ballot proposal passes, the people of Michigan would have to vote on that, as well.

The conference also heard from Rick Breon, CEO of Spectrum Health, regarding health care costs — a major issue in the U.S. business world. He said the addition of 600,000 more Medicaid patients in Michigan, resulting from the Affordable Care Act, is a challenge because the payment system is already grossly underfunded.

A major problem in U.S. health care is an increasing shortage of primary care physicians, said Breon, because there is a huge difference in pay between them and specialists. Lack of primary care doctors means prevention and detection of chronic diseases such as diabetes doesn’t start early enough, which adds much more expense to the overall medical system.

At the start of the conference, WMPF chairman Doug DeVos of Amway said it “isn’t about business; this isn’t about money. It’s about people.”

Jared Rodriguez, president of the WMPF, said the aim of the forum is to “let Lansing know what we think their policy priorities should be.”

The Business Leaders for Michigan were well represented at the conference, with Mike Jandernoa of Bridge Street Capital in Grand Rapids and Alan Schultz, chairman of marketing giant Valassis Communications in Livonia, making a presentation on how the BLM is working on its strategies to again make Michigan a top 10 state in the nation’s economy.

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