Opinion: A look back at Michigan from 2027

Richard Cole, Jeff Padden, and Doug Ross

Michigan faces divided government come Jan. 1, with Democrat Gretchen Whitmer to be sworn in as governor and Republicans retaining control of both houses of the Legislature. History tells us that this portends deadlock in Lansing and little hope for meaningful action to meet the state’s challenges and pursue any positive vision of the future. However, history is not destiny, but rather a warning that if we don’t do something different we are likely to repeat it.

Fortunately, we see a rare confluence of agendas and interests that offers the possibility for avoiding the partisan posturing and ideological clashes that have made divided government a death knell for constructive state action in the past—a confluence that will require political acumen and goodwill to exploit. The same priorities for building Michigan into a state with growing family incomes and high-wage jobs sit atop the public “to do” lists of the business community, the unions and a majority of Michiganians—rebuild the state’s infrastructure, especially the “damn roads, and improve struggling schools and workforce skills. Economists agree that these popular priorities are in fact the right ones for communities working to be successful and competitive in the mid-21st century.

Despite divided government, we see an opportunity for the new governor and the bipartisan leadership of the Legislature to declare a partnership (a partisan “demilitarized zone”) around both these high-leverage areas of public action. As three who have experienced the frustration of divided government in the past and undoubtedly been part of the problem, we see no reason why such a partnership cannot be achieved now. Indeed, it is the only way we see a hopeful path for Michigan in the years immediately ahead.

Below is our vision of what Michigan could accomplish over the next decade if the leadership of both parties were to take advantage of this rare consensus on what they must do to provide our citizens with a prosperous place to work and raise their families.

Gubernatorial candidate Gretchen Whitmer works the crowd at a campaign event at Gordon Park in Detroit on  Sunday.


From the pages of the April 27, 2027 Detroit News

Michigan Tops Nation in Income Growth for Second Straight Year

Today the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics released data showing Michigan leading the U.S. in per capita income growth for the second year in a row. The steady growth in Michiganians earnings over the past decade has moved the state from 32nd to 10th nationally in average personal income, displacing Minnesota as the Midwest leader.

The Tale of Two Governors

The state’s rise from Great Recession disaster to Great Lakes success is a tale of two Governors over two decades. Republican Rick Snyder, a former computer executive and self- proclaimed “tough nerd,” assumed the Michigan governorship in 2010. He employed revenue from the national economic rebound to put the state’s finances on more solid ground, and refashioned the state’s business tax system to attract more investment. By 2018, Snyder’s last year in office, Business Leaders for Michigan, the state’s association of Fortune 500 CEO’s, could report that “Michigan’s tax climate has flipped from one of the nation’s worst to one of the best, and the state ranks very favorably in terms of the total cost of doing business.” However, the business group was quick to add that the state “still has a long way to go” when it comes to overall competitiveness.

Two Priorities and a Surprising Coalition

Enter Democrat Gretchen Whitmer, a former State Senate minority leader elected governor in 2018. Under her leadership, the state was able to shake its rustbelt image. This allowed Michigan to attract good paying jobs from around the world as well as grow them locally.” Whitmer recognized a rare confluence of interests and public opinion around two issues with the potential to boost family earnings and the state’s competitiveness: replacing Michigan’s crumbling infrastructure with one capable of supporting a modern economy, and dramatically increasing the education and skill level of the state’s workforce.

The new governor confronted a divided government with Republicans in control of both houses of the Legislature. She saw in these two areas of potential bipartisan agreement—physical and talent infrastructure--a possible way around the deadlock that divided government had imposed on previous governors of both parties.

Gov. Whitmer capitalized on the fact that infrastructure and talent were business’ top priorities while also responding to Michigan’s still-powerful unions’ hunger for more good-paying jobs to replace lost assembly jobs. Since both issues enjoyed broad public support from voters (she had just been elected on a pledge to “fix the damn roads” and reform the faltering schools), Whitmer offered the leadership of the Republican-led State House and Senate a partnership to advance these two critical issues together.

The Michigan Story unfolded over the next eight years as one of focus, determination, and persistent efforts to occupy bipartisan common ground. Despite a national recession in 2021 and the challenge of an aging population, Whitmer and the bipartisan leadership of the Legislature maintained a disciplined focus on achieving their common physical and talent infrastructure agenda—while making sure normal partisan bickering didn’t detract from this two-issue compact.

Damn Roads are fixed

A sufficient number of legislative members of both parties voted to raise gas taxes in 2019 as a first step in fulfilling the bipartisan pledge to fix the roads. This opening action brought business, labor, and community leadership together for the larger challenge of marshalling support for approval of $20 billion in full faith and credits bonds to finance a national-class physical infrastructure including the smart road technology Michigan needs to compete to be the U.S. autonomous vehicle capitol.

Bonds backed by the full faith and credit of the state require a vote of the people. The Whitmer administration initially turned to the governor’s social media network, the vestiges of a campaign structure she sought to transform into a movement to rebuild Michigan, along with the construction industry and local governments to organize an initiative to place the bond issue on the 2020 ballot. However, the GOP Legislature, sensing strong public support for the measure, worked with Democrats to put the bond question directly on the ballot allowing an earlier November 2019 vote.

The state’s leadership explained that a bond issue for roads, bridges, water systems, and smart-road technology was like taking out a mortgage to upgrade your house—enjoying the benefits of the improvements immediately while being able to pay for it over its life. Backed by a strong media campaign funded by business and the unions, the measure passed.

More Degrees and Skills

The state then turned to the second leverage point for elevating Michigan’s economic standing: making the state’s workforce one of the most educated and skilled in the nation. Given Michigan’s aging work force, middling ranking in the college attainment of its adults, and its children’s dismal and stagnant test scores on national assessments, this was a complex task involving significant numbers of public and private players.

Drawing on the shared commitment of business, labor, and the public to improve the state’s education system and thereby increase the ability to attract and grow more high-paying jobs, the state adopted a three-part bipartisan talent agenda.

First, the governor and Legislature acted to increase the percentage of Michiganians between the ages of 25 and 35 with a two- or four-year college degree or an occupational certificate. Given the powerful correlation between a state’s per capita income and the percent of its workforce holding post-secondary credentials, Michigan’s political leaders decided to follow other states like Massachusetts and Tennessee that had made the increased education attainment of their workforces a centerpiece of their successful economic development strategies.

In autumn of 2019, the Legislature enacted the Michigan Promise and Michigan Reconnect, both modeled after the initiatives pioneered by GOP Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam. The Promise provided free college tuition and fees to all Michigan high school graduates enrolling in community college (three years later The Promise was expanded to cover the first two years of college whether in a community college or four-year university). Michigan Reconnect resulted in every Michigan adult receiving a state job skill account.

Pre-loaded with “credits” sufficient to cover tuition charges at qualified institutions, the accounts provided access to skill training for those in the workforce who needed additional skills to improve their earning potential in their current job or to acquire new skills for a better job. The result was a substantial boost in the percentage of Michigan 25 to 35-year-olds with four-year or two-year college degrees from 48 % in 2018 to nearly 60% in 2027.

Lifted Michigan’s Schools Up From The Bottom

Second, the state emulated others like Florida and Tennessee that were producing strong student gains in reading and math on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP). This strategy involved converting the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) from a predominantly regulatory agency to a proactive source of know-how and support to tightly align the state’s college and career ready outcomes and assessments with classroom activities and teacher training. The state’s tradition of “local control” had left much of this alignment work to individual school districts and charter school networks. The newly empowered state education agency was equipped with additional resources and a helping orientation that produced grade and subject-specific teaching materials and classroom activities supported by a coherent state-wide training program to ensure that all teachers were prepared to use the new classroom resources effectively.

Michigan saw a steady pickup in its NAEP scores, moving from the bottom quarter of the states in 2017 to the top quarter by 2027.

The bipartisan coalition that had fostered the state’s physical infrastructure modernization and the initial steps in its talent agenda nearly buckled under the pressure of voting the resources needed to boost the quality of the state’s teacher force. A coalition of business and education groups had called on the state to raise teacher salaries both to retain the best teachers and attract the academically best-performing high school grads into teaching careers to replenish a dangerously shrinking state teacher pool.

With the 2020 elections looming, legislators of both parties balked at voting for higher taxes. Recognizing the failure to act as a threat to her broader talent agenda, the Governor turned to her Moms and Dads for Michigan Facebook platform. The more than 400,000 parents in this social network, along with a large number of the state’s more than 75,000 teachers, school administrators, local board members quickly began collecting the signatures necessary to put a tax package on the ballot earmarked for public education.

Seeing the strong grassroots support for the measure and wanting the flexibility to modify the new taxes in the future as conditions required, the Legislature enacted, and the Governor signed the “Talent Tax” package. The measure represented a “grand bargain” in which business and their Republican allies supported more resources for funding teacher compensation and additional funds for schools with at risk students in return for earmarked funds to meet third grade reading goals—an ongoing GOP priority—and legislation to keep assessment and accountability measures in place for at least the next decade to avoid efforts to water down standards when student scores slip. The state now had the revenue it needed to upgrade its education workforce—a key element of its school improvement strategy.

Pioneering the Next Generation of Schools

The third part of Michigan’s Talent strategy is the one that jumped Michigan to the head of the pack. A growing number of business leaders and educators had been warning Michiganians that their traditional industrial-style schools with their standardized, 3Rs-focused learning designs were not well-suited to the demands of the emerging high-wage economy.

In this new economy, employees are expected to solve problems, be creative, work collaboratively, and communicate well with others—skills not taught in most traditional schools. Leading employers argued that rather than focus all the state’s energies on improving the performance of an increasingly obsolete set of existing schools, Michigan should take the lead in creating the next generation of public schools designed to meet the human capital needs of the high-wage businesses that increasingly dominate the state’s economic landscape. As the debate sharpened between those who wanted the state’s current schools to produce better results and those arguing for a shift to a next generation of 21st century schools, the governor and her legislative partners stepped in to resolve the debate by pressing the state’s schools and education leaders to do both.

Reconfiguring MDE allowed the department to coordinate and actively support an alignment of desired learning outcomes to teacher practice in existing schools. This alignment resulted in higher student performance.

Simultaneously, providing research and development resources, innovation incentives and relevant alternative assessments, the department encouraged districts to embark on the transition from their traditional school designs to the more student-centered, hands-on, community-connected schools that were beginning to emerge around the country.

Michigan’s Secret Sauce

What made the difference for Michigan was the shared vision and persistence of its political, business, labor, and non-profit leadership – a persistent vision that illuminated the path forward despite the fog that surrounds most public decision making. Its leaders refused to let a divided government block Michigan’s path to the future.

Richard Cole is a retired health care executive and university professor and former press secretary and chief of staff to Gov. James J. Blanchard.

Jeff Padden is a former state representative and founder and board chair of Public Policy Associates, Inc.

Doug Ross is a former state senator, Michigan commerce director, and U.S. assistant secretary of labor.