Finley: Michigan has it mostly right; stay the course

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

Michigan's latest report card on economic competitiveness offers guidance to a new governor and legislative leaders on what still needs fixing, and what should be left alone.

For the most part, the state is on a roll, according to the annual report from Business Leaders for Michigan. Over the past decade it's cracked into the nation's Top 10 in job creation and growth of the workforce, per-capita income and gross domestic product.

It's also now among the business climate leaders, ranking in the Top 10 for attractive business and corporate tax rates. 

Michigan Governor-elect Gretchen Whitmer  takes questions from the media during a press conference at the Motor City Casino Hotel in Detroit  on Wednesday.

That's great news, considering how dire Michigan's future seemed when Gov. Rick Snyder took over its leadership eight years ago.

The improvements aren't coincidental. They are directly tied to the carefully crafted comeback policies Snyder and a Republican Legislature put in place.

Voters last week changed the political alignment in Lansing. While the Legislature is still under Republican control, Democratic Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer will replace the Republican incumbent.

When she was in the Senate during Snyder's first term, Whitmer opposed many of the tax and regulatory reforms Snyder put in place.

Now, she's had the chance to see the success of those initiatives, as evidenced by the BLM report card. And she can also see what hasn't been accomplished. 

Whitmer should avoid messing with what's working and concentrate on the areas in the BLM study where Michigan is lagging.

Those include infrastructure, education and workforce development.

BLM notes that Michigan's crumbling roads, water lines and sewers hurt it's long-term ability to attract jobs and investment.

It also restates what we already knew: Our schools aren't cutting it. 

Michigan ranks in the Bottom 10 in fourth grade reading proficiency and the number of students enrolled in career and technical programs. It's in the bottom half of states for eighth grade math proficiency, high-schoolers considered career and college ready and the percentage of the working age population with an associate's degree or higher.

That failure to prepare our children and workers for success will be a drag on Michigan's prosperity.

Even in most of the areas where Michigan is outpacing the nation in terms of growth, in most it does not yet rank in the Top 10. If it did, BLM says, 36,000 more people would have jobs in the state and per capita income would be $10,000 higher.

We have to stay on a pro-growth course.

Whitmer has said she would not rollback Snyder's business reforms, and that's encouraging.

But she has raised a couple of early red flags. She promised to jettison the pension tax, which would take $300 million from the budget. And she's said she'd raid the $1 billion Rainy Day fund to provide services to Flint children affected by the water crisis.

Cutting taxes without commensurate spending reductions is irresponsible and would jeopardize Michigan's eight-year streak of producing balanced budgets adopted well ahead of deadline.

And absent a sharp economic downturn, the Rainy Day fund should be off-limits. A healthy surplus keeps Michigan's credit rating up and its borrowing costs down. 

A change in leadership at the top should not mean a wholesale change in the direction of the state. Focus on what hasn't been fixed, and let the things that have keep on working.

Catch “The Nolan Finley Show” weekdays 7-9 a.m. on 910 AM Superstation.