Howes: Michigan 'comeback' narrative meets cold reality
On his morning-after call to discuss the 4-1 defeat of Proposal One, the ill-conceived roads measure, no one asked Gov. Rick Snyder about his alleged presidential aspirations.
Good thing, because the rationale of Michigan-as-comeback-state and his leadership of it suffered a big setback at the hands of voters. The home of the industry that put America on wheels, and that American taxpayers rescued from imminent collapse, can't find a way to rebuild its crumbling roads and bridges.
The irony is unmistakable, and it doesn't end there. From roads and public education to economic development incentives, a Michigan that roared back to life on the strength of the automotive rebound is showing signs of losing its way on critical public-policy issues.
Voters said as much in their thorough repudiation of the roads package. The Frankenstein of goodies designed to appeal to diverse constituencies ultimately alienated just about everyone, proving that political cowardice and ineffective leadership have their price.
That could have profound implications for efforts to attract business investment, to compete with rival states, to legitimize any (long-shot) presidential flirtation, or to support the comeback narrative Snyder is shopping around the country, including stops Thursday and Friday in New York.
"The Prop 1 vote is a temporary setback," Sandy Baruah, CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber, wrote in an e-mail. "We are still a terrific comeback story, and as long as the issue of roads gets addressed fairly quickly, the overall Michigan story is very positive. Even with our poor and worsening roads, our economic and demographic indicators are all headed in the right direction."
Despite, it appears, the political leadership in Lansing. As much as the auto industry's resurgence, Detroit's successful negotiation of municipal bankruptcy and declining unemployment statewide support a comeback narrative, the roads debacle and continuing tension over public education suggest something else.
Namely, the comeback of Snyder's national marketing tour is far from complete. Worse, broadly divergent opinions of what steps to take next (just among the Republicans who control the Legislature and governor's office), signal a confused agenda in need of direction from an occasionally feared leader.
Republican leaders, the governor included, flooded media outlets Wednesday with promises to find another way to fund road and bridge repairs, confirming that all the talk of "no Plan B" was just talk. Fine, but where's the muscle to make the replacement a reality? The spirit of cooperation, a hallmark of Snyder's style, has limits without the hammer of discipline he is so reluctant to wield.
In polls, voters said fixing the state's crumbling infrastructure is a priority. They said they would back a one-point increase in the 6-percent sales tax if the incremental revenue is devoted solely to roads. Their repudiation of the roads ballot question amounts to a demand for leadership.
And yet, Republican legislative leaders and the governor appear to be drawing different conclusions from the electoral rebuke. Snyder warned that a solution likely would require new revenue, while Speaker Kevin Cotter took aim at current spending — particularly the economic incentives of the Michigan Economic Development Corp.
"We shouldn't be solving one problem by creating another," Doug Rothwell, CEO of Business Leaders for Michigan and chairman of the MEDC's executive committee, wrote in an e-mail. "Our economic development incentives are already less than what other states offer, and they are investing more to grow key sectors of their economies. Just when our economy is turning the corner, is now the time to cut back on economic development? Other states would like that."
Starting with Ohio and Indiana. The over-arching risk in the scramble to find a roads alternative is that it will be complicated by the petty political concerns of legislators, threats by their critics (and potential challengers) on the right and the left, and the continuing distraction of Snyder's amorphous presidential ambition.
None of it is helpful, or the building blocks of a turnaround with staying power. Like Detroit automakers rescued from oblivion, evidence of the "new" Michigan promoted by Team Snyder rests as much in what its leaders do as how they do it.
The credibility of Michigan's comeback story, and the people who tout it, depends on making the basic functions of government workable, affordable and sustainable beyond the next election. Time to get back on track, quickly, to focus on the job at hand — not the next one.
Daniel Howes' column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays and can be found at http://detroitnews.com/staff/27151.