Blog: John Bebow

John Bebow is executive director of the Center for Michigan. Before that he spent 16 years working as an investigative reporter for The Chicago Tribune, Detroit Free Press, and Detroit News and helped found and serve as editor-in-chief of John will be writing about how we can better provide for Michigan's future. 

Post No. 4

For eight months this year, Detroit Free Press political reporter Dawson Bell followed the daily machinations in Lansing as the governor and Legislature groped their way toward fulfilling their most fundamental responsibility -- setting a state government budget.
In the end, after much noise, threat of government shutdown, a bizarre tax increase on things like palm reading and the bronzing of baby shoes, and many government reforms proposed but not really acted upon, Bell summed it all up with a simple statement.
"There was a lack of vision," Bell said in October during a speech at Northern Michigan University, his alma mater. "None of the key people involved were capable of articulating what kind of a state Michigan should be."
It's not just jaundiced journalists who say such things.
Lack of a clear vision for Michigan's future is what prompted more than 100 statewide leaders to come together last spring to launch what's called the Michigan's Defining Moment Public Engagement Campaign
Sitting in roundtable discussions in Livonia and East Lansing, these leaders began the difficult task of creating a citizens vision for Michigan's future.
If that sounds pie-in-the-sky, consider that this kind of "deliberative democracy" involving groups outside of government is going on all over the country. In New Jersey, citizen tax assemblies have been debating ways to rewrite that state's tax code. In northeast Ohio, some 30,000 citzens have worked in the past couple of years to create a cohesive vision for the rebuilding of that "rust belt" region. In New Orleans, residents displaced by Hurricane Katrina have a voice in the rebuilting process, even if they're now living thousands of miles away.
For the kickoff of the Michigan's Defining Moment Public Engagement Campaign last spring, the discussions included Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, business leaders, educators, health care practitioners, heads of non-profit groups. Richard McLellan, a Lansing attorney and longtime leader and strategist in state Republican circles, was seated next to Andy Buchsbaum, a longtime liberal activist and the head of the Great Lakes office of the National Wildlife Federation. Young entrepreneurs sat with business vets who'd been around since the 1970s. East siders from Detroit sat with west siders from Grand Rapids.
Could this diverse group agree on everything? Of course not. But they did agree on many things, and released these "Principles for Michigan's Transformation" that are not being debated and refined by citizens statewide...

Michigan is at a defining moment. We can stay lashed to the past, lamenting the loss of 20th Century economic dominance and operating under "old ways" likely to lead to a poorer, more divided future. Or we can come together, embrace change, and create a new era of opportunity. In this new era, Michigan will be known globally as the attractive "North Coast," a place with a highly diversified and innovative economy, bountiful natural resources and a great quality of life.

We propose this vision for a prosperous Michigan future:

  • A Talented, Globally Competitive Workforce.
  • A Vibrant Economy & Great Quality of Life.
  • Effective, Efficient & Accountable Government.

Many individual leaders and community groups across the state have endorsed these principles, which are gaining traction in our State Capitol. Michigan needs broader public engagement and demand for a transformational agenda. Michigan needs elected leaders at all levels to take the steps necessary to realize a long-term, future-oriented vision for the state. To that end, now is the time to grow, inspire, and support leadership across our state.

Principle: To prosper in the flat world of the 21st Century, Michigan must greatly enhance the skills and potential of its people so they can compete with workers around the globe - and win. That means we must grow, retain, and attract talent.
  • Dramatically improve overall learning and completion rates from early childhood to K-12 to higher education.
  • Assure affordable access to lifelong learning so young people get the skills they need to launch prosperous careers and workers in mid-career and beyond can best adapt to the rapidly changing economy.
  • Greatly increase recognition that education and creativity are essential tickets to prosperity.
  • Make Michigan welcoming to all.
  • Rejuvenate communities to assure they have the amenities, culture, and diversity to develop, attract and retain talented people. Effectively manage the size and cost of our infrastructure.
Principle: To compete globally and prosper, Michigan must invest in those assets which differentiate it from other places to best attract and retain job providers and talent.
  • Remake and re-brand Michigan as a vibrant and entrepreneurial "North Coast." A place that is home to one-fifth of the world's fresh surface water and other bountiful natural resources that support sustainable growth in industries such as agriculture, tourism, and forestry. And a place that grows ever smarter and more innovative.
  • Establish a new "public purse" - a tightly focused, long-term, sustained taxing and spending strategy. Top spending priorities: education, economic development, marketing our state to the world, and quality of life investments in arts & culture, natural resources, health, and safety. Michigan must continually assess and modernize its tax structure to maximize and sustain those public investments that are crucial for the state's competitiveness in the global economy.
  • Greatly boost economic development by growing an entrepreneurial culture, growing venture capital and ensuring a competitive, simple and predictable business tax structure.
  • Intensify commercialization of university research.
  • Continue to thrive as a manufacturing powerhouse, especially in high-tech manufacturing and engineering requiring highly skilled workers.
  • Provide greater recognition and support for our state's growing new economy of entrepreneurs and small businesses.
  • Embrace change and risk as key factors in 21st Century personal and corporate success.
Principle: For Michigan to maximize the amount of tax dollars devoted to our most distinctive and competitive assets, our public sector must be nimble, thrifty, and accountable. State and local government, schools, and higher education must maximize efficiency to assure sustainable funding for Michigan's most pressing and strategic future needs. Public institutions must better serve people and embrace change.
  • Increase collaboration and service sharing among Michigan's hundreds of school districts and local government units. Tax revenue sharing and state laws should reward collaboration, service sharing, efficiency, and best practices.
  • Benchmark public sector practices and highlight and replicate the best and most efficient.
  • Continually examine public sector pay and benefits, weigh those costs against private market standards, and adjust accordingly to assure the public receives highest possible services at most reasonable costs.
  • Scrutinize and limit spending on corrections and general government operations that do not clearly contribute to the state's future competitive stake.
  • Manage large and growing public sector pension and health care burdens so that those legacy costs do not erode public investment in Michigan's most pressing and strategic needs.
  • Increase political accountability so that Michigan can rely on experienced, strategic, competent and decisive leaders in elected offices — leaders willing to set aside traditional party politics to craft and implement bipartisan strategies to move Michigan forward. Possible approaches to governance include lengthened term limits, a unicameral and/or part-time legislature, campaign finance reform, and redistricting.