DETROIT — With just days to go before a “divisive” election, the state’s business roundtable sought to stay out of politics and instead focus on Michigan’s future growth opportunities during its annual conference.
Speaking on Thursday at the Business Leaders for Michigan CEO Summit, President and CEO Doug Rothwell used his time during the annual event differently than in past years.
Rothwell, who formerly led the Michigan Economic Development Corp. (MEDC), told the approximately 400 attendees that rather than release new economic benchmarking data just days before Tuesday’s midterm elections, he instead wanted to focus on laying out a vision for the next eight years of economic growth for the state.
Most notably, Rothwell called on the next crop of Michigan’s political leaders to focus on consistency.
“If there’s one thing to think about in Michigan’s history that we’re pretty consistent about, it’s that we’re consistently inconsistent,” Rothwell said, noting the state’s frequent policy changes around the use of economic development incentives and shifting education standards.
“Too often, it’s with the prevailing political winds,” he added. “Being competitive means you have to adapt to new conditions, but when you continually change course, it’s really hard to expect to be successful.
“As someone who used to recruit business to the state, this way of doing business hurts Michigan. Other states constantly use our policy schizophrenia against us.”
While Rothwell sought to eschew electoral politics at the event, the Business Leaders for Michigan Political Action Committee previously endorsed GOP candidate and sitting state Attorney General Bill Schuette, who’s currently trailing in polling to Democratic rival Gretchen Whitmer, a former state Senate leader.
Rothwell laid out five questions he hopes voters will consider when they head to the polls next week to elect a new governor and state legislators:
- • Will they continue to follow sound fiscal management practices?
- • Do they support specific actions to reduce the state’s long-term debt?
- • Are they prepared to raise user fees to fix our roads permanently and sustainably?
- • Are they serious about ensuring our schools deliver better results, our kids get an affordable college education and our workers get the training they need?
- • Are they committed to Michigan having a strong and competitive economic development program and building on Michigan’s strengths to grow our mobility, engineering, travel, logistics and other critical sectors?
With regards to roads and users fees, Whitmer has made “fix the damn roads” her campaign slogan and new taxes could be part of that solution. Meanwhile, Schuette has said he’ll focus on cutting taxes while rearranging dollars to fix roads, something several fiscal experts have questioned, according to reports.
While all those issues remain top of mind for business leaders around the state, the concerns around Michigan’s “failing” education system remain paramount for many of the state’s top executives.
Patti Poppe, President and CEO of Jackson-based energy utility Consumers Energy, cited several “gloomy” statistics like Michigan being nearly dead last in 4th grade reading levels around the country.
“This is a problem. We have a big problem and there’s no time to waste,” Poppe said during the Business Leaders for Michigan event. “We’re about to go through a (gubernatorial) administration change, and I think business leaders have a very important role to play to maintain momentum.”
Poppe urged the state’s business community to deepen its involvement with Launch Michigan, a recently-launched initiative headed up by Business Leaders for Michigan, several foundations and the Michigan Education Association, the state’s main teacher union.
“We can fix this,” she said. “We can prepare for an extraordinary future for young people”