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Innovation, education, community-building highlight growth council’s final report

Map of the state of Michigan
Wikipedia Media Commons
Map of the state of Michigan

The Michigan government council tasked with figuring out how to reverse Michigan’s slow population growth released its final report Thursday.

The Growing Michigan Together Council report lists three main strategies.

The first involves building Michigan up as “the innovation hub of the Midwest.”

The second is building a skills-based “lifelong learning system.”

Third is creating “thriving, resilient communities” that appeal to young talent.

Detroit Public Schools Community District Superintendent Nikolai Vitti sat on the council. During Thursday’s meeting, he said he wants to see the strategies transformed into policy.

“This type of report cannot sit on a desk or on a shelf and collect dust. I think we all have been part of these councils, task forces, and we all are growing tired of giving our time and effort but not seeing things done and not seeing things happen,” Vitti said.

The council was tasked with identifying problems and coming up with strategies to fix them.

One of the key challenges identified is that Michigan has only grown a little under 9% since 1980, while the country as a whole has grown by over 45%.

Another struggle is that the state’s revenue collections, median incomes, education system, and infrastructure have all fallen behind what the report described as “peer states.” Those included Indiana, North Carolina, Minnesota, Colorado, and Washington.

Anecdotally, all of these had been topics of conversation around Michigan and its lag of other states for years.

Council member Ollie Howie, with New Community Transformation Fund Grand Rapids, said having those problems quantified raises the level of urgency.

“It’s more than just something we need to focus on, it’s a crisis that we need to address,” Howie said.

To fix those problems, the commission gave a list of recommendations to go along with the suggested strategies. They included developing an economic growth plan, providing students with up to two years of free postsecondary education, and building up “robust and reliable regional public transit systems.”

The council had 20 voting members, including former Republican lieutenant governor and current Small Business Association of Michigan CEO Brian Calley, University of Michigan President Santa Ono, and Michigan SEIU labor union Executive Director Jennifer Root.

The council’s final meeting Thursday resembled a virtual group hug, with nearly every member saying kind things about the final report before casting their vote for it.

In total, the report passed 19-1.

The lone “no” vote came from state Representative Pauline Wendzel (R-Watervliet). She said she appreciated the council’s work but disagreed with some of the recommendations.

“I believe that many of them are already being done by our government in some capacity, or they are able to already do without legislation. I also believe that this committee did not fulfill one of the directives put forth by the governor and that is finding new revenue,” Wendzel said.

How the council would pay for its recommendations has been a major point of criticism from Wendzel’s Republican colleagues in the Michigan Legislature.

Republican minority leadership had accused the council of giving Governor Gretchen Whitmer cover to propose tax hikes—something Republicans said they staunchly opposed.

Despite alluding to many of the state’s revenue woes and pointing to a need for new revenue, none of the council’s nine recommendations explicitly explain how to raise that money.

Howie said it came down to a matter of time limitations on the council, though he made the case the recommended projects should be doable.

“Some of them can be self-funded and can be funded with private and public partnership. And so, I think it is a lot of work to do on that. I think the report alludes to that,” Howie said.

Next, the report will be submitted to Whitmer and the Legislature.

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Colin Jackson is the Capitol reporter for the Michigan Public Radio Network.
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