Infrastructure and education remain at the top of the policy agenda for 2019 for Business Leaders for Michigan, a statewide roundtable of top business and higher education executives. Led by President and CEO Doug Rothwell, the group this year created a broad coalition of business, labor, philanthropy and civic leaders across the state that in 2019 will look at ways to improve K-12 education. The organization will continue to advocate as well for state investments in infrastructure.
What do you look forward to from the new administration in 2019?
I’m very optimistic. I think that we have a very unique opportunity, actually, to address the two issues — infrastructure and education — because the Governor-elect, Gretchen Whitmer, has said those are important issues to her. She deserves a lot of credit putting herself up there to say that we’re going to need to raise more revenue to fix the roads. That is the only solution to that problem.
How about in the state Legislature?
My hope is that we have also in (House Speaker) Lee Chatfield and (Senate Majority Leader) Mike Shirkey some very practical leaders over in the legislature. If the right solution can be developed, my hope is infrastructure, for one, is an issue that can get bipartisan support and we can put this issue behind us once and for all.
Do you have the same hopes for the challenges around education?
Education may be a little more difficult to deal with. There’s broad consensus that we’re not getting the results we need. The coalition that I’m helping lead with the MEA (Michigan Education Association) and the Skillman Foundation, Launch Michigan, is a unique opportunity because you have this broad nonpartisan coalition that is going to come up with some recommendations over the next three to six months. My hope is we’re going to give air cover to the parties to really get behind these and begin to tackle this problem, too.
How should Gov.-elect Whitmer view your organization?
We’re a policy group. Our goal is to come up with ideas and strategies and solutions based on best practices that will make Michigan a top 10 state. That’s all we care about. We always want to be thought of as a resource to a governor and to legislative leaders to help them navigate the right solutions that are really going to move the needle for the state.
How does your organization view her?
Very optimistically. We think she is somebody that brings a lot of experience to the job. She’s been in a variety of different positions in the public sector, but her legislative experience in particular is going to be a real asset. That is something that neither Rick Snyder nor Jennifer Granholm had, and I think that we see that some of the issues that couldn’t be solved during the last 16 years really came down to politics. Somebody that has her experience with navigating the road funding issue or things like that is going to be an asset when it comes to actually getting something done. We’re looking forward to working with her, and with Mike Shirkey and Lee Chatfield. We can’t overlook the fact that we have new legislative leaders and very practical ones.
Do you see a sense of pragmatism and practicality breaking out in Lansing in 2019?
I really do. First of all, Lee and Mike are not running for anything. They’re just focused right now on their own jobs. You have a brand-new governor that has a four-year window. So for now, at least, there’s a window of opportunity for people to focus on the work that needs to be done, rather than what they want to run for. That’s the time you need to strike and actually accomplish something. It’s in everybody’s best interests that we accomplish something, right? At the end of the day, they’re still going to have to run for something in the future, and it’s always best to run on a positive track record than just opposing for the sake of opposing them.
What’s your advice to Gov.-elect Whitmer?
Let’s not throw out the baby with the bath water. Gov.-elect Whitmer understands this. Just because Rick Snyder and the Republican Legislature did it, doesn’t make it automatically bad … particularly as it comes back to budget and fiscal policy. We have a good tax structure in place. We have a good set of budget policies and practices in place. Let’s keep those going because that has helped us get back in the game again. Let’s not tear down and build up. Let’s build on to what’s already there.
How will her background in the Legislature help?
She has a learning curve as well, but I think that she still has an understanding at least of how the process works and how it is about personalities and building trust. There are going to be tradeoffs that you have to make, and it is a bargaining process and you don’t get everything you want but you want something to get done. You don’t let perfection stand in the way of progress. Those are attributes that in the long run will benefit her.
Interview conducted and condensed by Mark Sanchez.