Many people who were not able to attend the second West Michigan Policy Forum recently read and heard a lot about it, “and I can tell you, they will attend next time. They heard the buzz,” according to Jared Rogriguez.
Rodriguez, a senior vice president at the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce and director of the Policy Forum, which met for the second time in the last two years on Sept. 16-17, said the conference came in under budget and attracted between 500 and 550 people from throughout Michigan. Attendees included representatives from 12 chambers of commerce in the state – and even one in Canada, the Windsor-Essex Regional Chamber of Commerce in Windsor, Ontario.
“We went international this time,” joked Rodriguez.
Chambers actively involved in the Forum ranged from the Kalamazoo region in the south to the Traverse City area in northwest Michigan, “and beyond, and between. And that is still a new thing,” said Steward Sandstrom, president/CEO of the Kalamazoo Regional Chamber.
“We continue to work through that relationship, to be able to speak with one voice,” added Sandstrom, which will be “critically important, we think, for the whole state.”
The separate appearances of the two Michigan gubernatorial candidates at the Forum to answer questions was one of the highlights this year, for many of the attendees.
“I think our members appreciated that both (Rick Snyder and Virg Bernero) were there, and the opportunity to hear their thoughts,” said Jane Clark, president of the Holland Area Chamber of Commerce.
At the debut conference two years ago, attendees debated the issues hurting business and ultimately voted on five “directives” to the state government to revitalize Michigan’s economy. Those are:
- Eliminate the Michigan Business Tax with corresponding spending cuts.
- Implement a right-to-work status for Michigan.
- Increase funding for health care providers with prevention practices.
- Streamline the state government business permits process.
- Update funding mechanisms for the state’s transportation infrastructure.
Attendees were reminded repeatedly to keep lobbying their state senators and representatives to take action on the directives.
At least a dozen or more people from the Traverse City region were in attendance, including representatives of the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce and the Northern Michigan Regional Chamber Alliance, which includes representatives from the chambers in Traverse City, Cadillac, Charlevoix, Benzie County, Petoskey and Alpena.
When asked which directive is probably perceived as most important in his region, Doug DeYoung, director of government relations for the Traverse City chamber and for the northern Chamber Alliance, replied “the MBT.”
“We need to fix the tax structure for business in this state,” said DeYoung.
“We’re concerned also with the regulatory issues that the state has, in terms of just not having a consistent regulatory program and requirements. They are inconsistent. They are different from region to region, different from business to business, and the time it takes to get something done —that’s probably number two in our region,” said DeYouing.
Sandstrom said it is “hard to prioritize” the five directives, unless the prioritization is from a timing standpoint.
“From a timing standpoint, management/labor relationships are an issue that will be around for a while, and won’t have resolution in the next two months,” said Sandstrom.
“Tax policy is one that we expect to have real change in, in the first two months” of the administration of the new governor and the Legislature, the membership of which will turn over dramatically in January due to incumbents forced out by term limits.
“Transportation infrastructure is one that has to take place even before that,” said Sandstrom. “At risk is $476 million of Michigan money sent to Washington, that we stand to lose if we cannot come up with $84 million” in matching funds for highway and bridge reconstruction.
“So from a timing standpoint, transportation would be number one. It’s what we have to get done first,” said Sandstrom.
He said he “appreciates” the fact that the Policy Forum did not get bogged down on debate of details within the issues. For example, the critical need for “funding of transportation infrastructure is the topic,” he said, as opposed to the sub-issue of how to fund it, such as through a gas tax or some other means.
Both Sandstrom and Clark independently suggested to the Business Journal that perhaps a sixth directive should be added: improvement of education in Michigan.
“Education is critical as well,” for the future of Michigan, said Clark.
“Education was a topic that we spent one of the (Policy Forum) sessions on,” said Sandstrom. “We’re Kalamazoo (home of the Kalamazoo Promise), the education community. That’s one we are especially interested in.”
Sandstrom said the state of Michigan must “make sure that more kids are graduating from high school, ready to go to college,” emphasizing “ready.”
Chamber representatives contacted by the Business Journal all commented favorably on the geographic and occupational diversity of the attendees.
“That shows a lot of broad-based interest in the Policy Forum,” said Clark.
Led by co-chairs Doug DeVos of Amway, Jim Dunlap of Huntington Bank, Grand Rapids businessman Peter Secchia, and Jeff Connolly of Blue Cross Blue Shield, more than 50 business and community leaders from across the state served on the latest Policy Forum steering committee. Although it is officially the “West Michigan” Policy Forum, the steering committee even included Doug Rothwell of Business Leaders for Michigan, which is headquartered in Detroit.
DeYoung noted the presence of representatives from Business Leaders for Michigan, the Center for Michigan “think-and-do-tank” in Ann Arbor, chambers and business owners from around the state, plus “educators from around the state who were there, and you get a broad perspective of the opportunity” the Forum offers to push for change in Michigan government.
“Regionally, we all have some different issues that we need to address but state wide, these are the biggest issues that we need to address, because they impact all our regions,” said DeYoung.
As for the next Forum two years from now, which will be roughly half-way through the term of the next governor, “we’re going to need to get together…because it’s going to be kind of a mid-term report card as to where things stand at the state level,” said DeYoung.