Guest column: Michigan will spend for better state

By John Austin/Michigan Economic Center

Over a year ago a set of citizens, leaders and organizations came together in the Michigan Economic Center to tap Michigan citizen’s ideas about how to move our economy forward. Our motivation was a belief that foundational economic assets of our state, which also are parts of our unique identity, were being diminished: great schools and universities, quality roads and transportation system, vibrant and historic cities, clean water, outdoors and great parks.

These are “public goods,” the things we do together as a community with our tax dollars, that the private sector and market does not provide on its own, that have suffered through years of tax and budget cuts and economic decline.

We saw other states facing similar fiscal and economic challenges that were still able to mobilize public will to support important investments: billions for business creation and university-led innovation in Ohio; clean water, outdoors, parks and art investment in Minnesota; higher education support in North Carolina at three times Michigan’s rate.

We wanted to know if Michigan citizens saw things the same. Through citizen focus groups, surveys, we asked: What does Michigan mean to you? What makes Michigan special? What is important to our economy? What condition are we in today? How would we do better? How should we pay for it?

The report released today  shares what we learned:

* Michigan Citizens believe ‘public good” investment matters.

Sixty-four percent of Michigan citizens believe the most important thing state government can do for job creation is not tax cuts, but “provide quality education, good roads and transportation, good public services like safety, water, fire, parks and libraries that create an environment in which people want to live, work and run a business.”

John Austin directs the Michigan Economic Center at Prima Civitas Foundation, and is the elected Democratic president of the Michigan State Board of Education.

* Michigan citizens see public goods degraded.

Fifty-one percent of citizens believe important public services (including road repair, local police and fire, quality schools and higher education, and state parks) are in worse or much worse condition today than 10 to 15 years ago.

* Citizens see a multi-faceted Michigan “ideal.”

Michigan values include: hard work and family; being fighters through adversity; the Great Lakes and outdoors as places to esacpe with family; our universities and education that provided a pathway to opportunity; andcommunities that are good places to raise families.

* Citizens say ideal and reality are not the same.

Michigan citizens see a significant gap between the “ideal” Michigan and current reality, which is defined by hardship, anxiety and struggle.

* Citizens see a four-point investment strategy to close the gap.

Citizens place urgency on a number of public good investment areas, including: ensuring public safety and fighting crime; providing quality education; protecting Great Lakes and natural resources; and supporting small business and innovation.

Michigan citizens also responded favorably to a number of specific strategies that spoke to important values and priorities, such as:

- A Vital Services Fund to invest in core community services.

- A Pure Michigan Fund to invest in clean water, conservation and recreation.

- A STEM scholarship Program and a Michigan Promise Initiative to pay for college for students who worked hard and applied their talents to Michigan.

- A Hatch Michigan Fund for supporting home-grown entrepreneurs.

All these concepts were seen favorably by more than 80 percent taking the statewide survey.

In raising revenue to pay for valued public good investment strategies, a majority of Michigan citizens said they wanted “polluters to pay” taxes; taxes to be levied on extractive industries; an increase in sin taxes; and a progressive or graduated income tax.

These findings provide insight and beginning direction about Michigan citizen values, priorities and the types of public good investment that do have potential broad appeal.

The report tells us how we might fashion needed higher education investments to win broad public support — by “getting something back” from our investment — and rewarding hard work. It validates the broad consensus that road and infrastructure funding are an urgent priority — and tells us a bit more about how we might raise the money to get that job done.

Findings also suggests we just discounted some of our precious Michigan assets, when legislation passed late last year levied only a modest, smaller-than-peer-states’ tax on mining interests to fund rural economic development. Citizens favor a robust extractive industries tax — when companies make a windfall mining our “jewels.”

We have more listening to do, to fine-tune what we might do to invest in Michigan, to call forth the latent, but strong support Michigan citizens have for making this state realize its promise anew. But we should all take heart that the citizens of Michigan are with us.

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission.

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Thu, 02/21/2013 - 8:57am
So we want a program to hatch entrepreneurs who will probably provide jobs, and then we want to tax their success more than their workers with a progressive income tax? Don't you realize that 4% of $200,000 is already 4 times what 4% of $50,000 is? I think I'd just move my business to Florida where they realize that I'd be doing my fair share by bringing jobs, plus the weather is a heck of a lot nicer for those of us who get out to walk and bike every day. On the higher education point, seems like we are leaving out vocational education. Too many overlook the vocations that can provide a well paying job.
Thu, 02/21/2013 - 10:16am
I agree 100% with Rich. Is Mr Austin saying lets just tax the job providers? A fair tax is one that everyone pays. I wonder if he has ever started a business to know what its like. Our company is now seriously researching importing from China so we can pay for Obamas mandates and regulations. We wouldn't down size our work force but at the same time we wouldn't be hiring.
Thu, 02/21/2013 - 2:30pm
Well european lost the war in 1945 by 1950 they where back on track?trains running .the bombout buidling /history where all replace made new .etc etc and they are in the tourist business and other vocation. while we hear speak speak seek research , research while the world around us is falling apart or being used as a exques e to get more grant taxpayer money for non finshed THE GOLDEN SIPIKE" over 30 years in the making..the trains stopping from chicago to detroit (in 2009 REp.John DINGELL iussed $ 200 million) so when is the train stopping for the thankgiving parade in detroit> Questio where is the money?and how much interset have we made?
Thu, 02/21/2013 - 4:38pm
Mr. Austin please help me understand this, is there something concrete that you can point to showing that crime (overall, across the state not just Flint or Detroit) is statistically higher over that last period of years or that deaths and injuries due to fire or other reasonably effectible accidents have shown any real increase to substantiate this publically perceived underinvestment in fire and police? (Let alone any evidence showing more fire and police would make any difference!) Is the call for more spending in these areas based on true statistics or is this just some knee jerk reaction to a polling question?
Liz Bauer
Thu, 02/21/2013 - 4:41pm
Read your column in Bridge. Thank you for that. Still it seems that too often I read accounts of what makes a state great...the arts, high quality education, as well as a vibrant business community etc, where the writer will cite Minnesota as an example. Having grown up there and with ties to the state, I agree. The parks, lakes, arts opportunities, and focus on education are terrific. What writers fail to mention is you get what you pay for. I see folks wanting to be like Minnesota (we share the same weather), but rarely talk about how it becomes desirable. They have high sales taxes, graduated income tax, all businesses incorporated in the state are required to donate 5% of profits to charitable organizations (arts, education, etc.). Target has turned their legal obligation into an ad campaign as you will see them on TV and elsewhere touting how they give 5% to charity. They don't mention it is the law. That said, I do not see big business leaving the state of Minnesota.. 3M, Honeywell, Pillsbury, General Mills, Bemis Bag, you name it. They stay because what they have created is worth keeping and it is attracting young people by the dozens to live and work in the state. It is not the weather, folks. It is the cultural climate. So as I watch Michigan giving tax breaks to business to keep and attract them at the expense of K-12 and higher education, the arts, the environment, all the things that draw people TO a state and community; I conclude Michigan has it backward. I see others who left comments have a different view. I write because I am tired of hearing what's great about states like Minnesota and Massachusetts and not hearing how their citizens foster and support that greatness.
Sun, 02/24/2013 - 2:34am
I read where there are towns in Minnesota that can't pay for repair of the water and sewer. Is this true?
Mike R
Sat, 02/23/2013 - 9:19am
Kudos to Ms. Bauer for pointing out the truth in the sayings, "You get what you pay for" and "You can't cut your way to prosperity." The tea baggers and other anti-revenue Nazis have convinced the legislature and the Governor that the only way to provide better schools, infrastructure, and health care is to starve them of public funds, in the criminally misguided belief that free-market competition is the solution for everything. Thank goodness the majority of residents are not so blind, self-absorbed, mean-spirited, or greedy.
Sun, 02/24/2013 - 10:48am
The results of this survey show that the values of most Michigan residents is not reflected in decisions made by the current state government. We are willing to pay for assets and quality of life. But make no mistake - we also want those industries like gas and oil extraction to be taxed to more accurately reflect their profit from the natural resources that belong to all of us. The public infrastructure that we all invest in makes it more profitable for businesses to operate (think airports, roads, educated workers, public safety).
Peter Bennett
Mon, 02/25/2013 - 8:59am
Thank you Liz Bauer. It is so refreshing to read intelligent people such as yourself speak out from a humanistic, citizens-first perspective. When you start there, everyone wins.