The Regional Policy Summit was kicked off Thursday morning with a welcoming by Amway President Doug DeVos. DeVos presented what he termed the vision statement that was developed by the conference planners. He said that Michigan needs to change its economy in order to have a collective voice for West Michigan on state policies. “We needed to develop ‘good’ public policy, have accountability, which we mean as ‘getting things done,’ and we need to have good results.”
DeVos then introduced Dr. Robert Genetski with the Heartland Institute. The title of Genetski’s talk was, “Does Michigan Mean Business?” The speaker spent the next hour talking about what he sees as problems with Michigan’s economy, what caused the problems, what can promote economic growth, and the importance of good governance. Genetski said that part of the problem was that Michigan has not taken “advantage of the market to maintain jobs in auto parts production.” This statement was reflective of much of what the speaker said, which was often vague and offered little or no data or sources to support his claims.
Genetski also stated that another major contributor to Michigan’s failing economy was the high business taxes. He then went on to say that low or no taxes is not a new idea–even in the Old Testament God only required 10% of people’s income, a comment that was met with a great deal of laughter. Next, Genetski stressed that Michigan needed to adopt classical market principles, such as low taxes, free markets, property rights protections, and stable prices. “If these principles are adopted Michigan’s economy will grow,” Genetski said. To support this position he said that Michigan policy makers should have their interest directly tied to the economic performance of the state. What he meant by that is that the budgets, salaries, and even pensions of state lawmakers should be tied to and determined by how well the state’s economy performed.
The speaker then provided three recommendations for change. He said, “Don’t punish businesses for doing business in Michigan, the government should be more efficient, and the state should promote free market for workers so that wages reflect worker productivity.” By punishing businesses, Genetski meant that the government taxes them too much. He felt that not only should taxation be eliminated but the state offices that decide how to distribute money to businesses should be done away with. However, the recommendation Genetski seemed to stress was that Michigan needs to change its approach to labor. He felt that unions are too “inflexible” and that Michigan should adopt a “Right to Work” state policy. Genetski also stated that “Michigan has lost more jobs to other states than other countries,” even though he did not cite any sources to support that claim.
Lastly, Genetski said that private education is also a huge benefit and more efficient than public education. This was supported by the comment that there should be “an increase in school choice, but more importantly there should be an aggressive school voucher plan for Michigan.” In many ways, the opening speaker set the tone for the rest of the day, with most of the speakers and panelists affirming what Genetski told the crowd.
The next speaker was Carol Coletta, with CEO’s for Cities. She began by saying that if you want Michigan to improve, you have to graduate more college students and retain them. She made the claim that if you increased by just 1% of college graduates in the top 50 urban cities you could generate $150 billion. She said that you need several things to attract and retain talent; you have to make connections with young people, provides services they want, your businesses have to be innovative is business, and local government needs to be clued in to what young people want. Coletta went on to say that young people are tech-savvy, want to live near downtown, and aspire to live green lifestyles. She never articulated what any of this really meant, but felt that West Michigan didn’t have enough of an identity to brand itself to attract young people.
After lunch there was a panel discussion involving three CEOs from local furniture companies. The discussion was moderated by businessman and GOP power broker, Peter Secchia. Secchia referred to the three furniture manufacturers (Steelcase, Haworth and Herman Miller) as “West Michigan’s Big Three.” The three CEOs were given time to comment on what they thought was important for the future of Michigan’s economy. Herman Miller CEO Brian Walker thought that reforming the tax system in Michigan was key. He advocated a tax system that rewarded companies that created more jobs and invested in research and development. Dick Haworth, Chairman of Haworth Inc., agreed that the current tax policy was bad for business. He also felt that our education policy needs to improve and become cost effective, that our energy policy is broken, and our labor environment needs to adopt a “Right to Work” policy. “I know that the unions will hate it but the workers, the ones that really count, will love it.” Haworth then said, “Free people are not equal and equal people are not free,” and “A government that is big enough to give everything, can take away everything.” James Hackett, the CEO of Steelcase didn’t have anything unique to add, but felt that West Michigan needs to be more aggressive implementing the proposals that were already stated.
The rest of the afternoon offered a choice of three breakout sessions that were only being offered once. The breakout sessions dealt with the future of Michigan governance, education, and the workforce. Each session had three presenters, two that were in line with the framework that was laid out by the opening speaker in that they were advocating smaller government, privatizing education, and promoting a “Right to Work” policy for Michigan. We were only able to sit in on “the Future of Michigan’s Workforce” session, but wanted to note some of the other session presenters.
The session on good governance was moderated by former State Senator Ken Sikkema, who is now with Public Sector Consultants in Lansing. Joining Sikkema on the panel were Louis Schimmel with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, Michael Shea, with a group called Government Strategies LLC, which works on “government mergers,” and Philip Power, founder of The Center for Michigan, a think tank formed in 2006. Former Michigan Lieutenant Governor Dick Posthumus, who is now CEO of Compatico Inc., an office supply and office furniture manufacturer moderated the session on education. The panel consisted of Steven Cousins, the Superintendent of Reeths-Puffer Public Schools, Frank Fuller of Florida State University and J.C. Huizenga, with the National Heritage Academies, which aggressively advocates for the privatizing of education.
The Future of Michigan’s Workforce included Birgit Klohs from The Right Place, Inc., which tries to attract businesses to West Michigan, Bill Black, a lobbyist with the Teamsters, and Stan Greer, with the National Institute for Labor Relations Research, an anti-union think tank. Rick Albin from WOOD TV8 moderated this session. The session almost seemed rigged since most everyone in the room, when asked, was in favor of Michigan being a “Right to Work” state. Klohs and Greer both defended the “Right to Work” position and Birgit Klohs even said that the number one barrier to her trying to convince businesses to some to West Michigan are unions, particularly the UAW. The Teamsters lobbyist tried to argue that “Right to Work” policies tend to lower wages, but the majority of questions posed by the moderator and the audience where anti-union in nature.
Tomorrow we will report on day two of the summit that will include a talk by Amway co-founder Richard DeVos as well as discussions on higher education and healthcare’s role in the “new Michigan economy.”