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Opinion | 5 problems with Whitmer group’s Michigan population plan

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s council on population growth is out with its official report. The Growing Michigan Together Council claims its “transformational strategies” will “create a Michigan poised for shared prosperity and growth.” Impressive, seeing as the council whipped this report together in just six months. A close look at the report’s 85 pages reveals five problems that undermine its recommendations.

Michael Van Beek
Michael Van Beek is the director of research at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a free-market research and educational institute in Midland.

1. The report failed basic requirements of Gov. Whitmer’s executive order

Whitmer’s June 1 executive order created the Growing Michigan Together Council. It says the council must produce a report that recommends “a specific population goal for 2050.” The closest the report gets to this is aiming to make Michigan “a top-ten state for population growth” by 2050.” No details are provided, so it is unclear which metrics to use. But this is more a state ranking goal than a population goal. If every state lost population in 2050 and Michigan lost less than 40 other states, would we celebrate achieving this goal? 

2. The council ducked calculating the costs of its expensive suggestions 

Like the population goal, this was a clear directive in the executive order. The governor told the council to “identify or propose different revenue sources to address gaps identified between revenues and expenditures to meet the goals identified by the Council.” The council punted on this, arguing it would not be “responsible for us to publish a specific estimate when our recommended strategies require systemic changes.” 

But many of the council’s recommendations are not systemic and cost estimates could have easily been calculated. The council, for instance, recommends taxpayers provide two years of postsecondary schooling for free to anyone who wants it. It also wants to add a guaranteed 13th year of high school for students who fail to graduate on time. These costs could be estimated without much effort.

3. The recommendations lack detail

It is impossible to estimate all the costs of the council’s recommendations because they are vague and lack detail. The council produced the report in only six months, so some of this can be forgiven. But it is so imprecise as to have little practical value. Dreaming up improvements is easy; figuring out the specific steps that will get us there from here is not. The council devoted its report to almost all the former and none of the latter. 

The report repeatedly proposes sweeping reforms but then falls silent on the details. Here’s one example: It says the state should “reimagine the job of teaching and the structure of the school day.”  But it names only two specific actions to take: “design new teaching and learning models” and “design new, high-quality teacher preparation programs.” These are too vague to be of value. 

4. Most of the report’s proposals are grandiose and unrealistic 

The council says its “transformational strategies” will create “a virtuous cycle of growth.” It wants to mold Michigan into the “Innovate Hub of the Midwest” and “America’s Scale-Up State.” The state needs “thriving, resilient communities that are magnets for young talent” and to “build a lifelong education system focused on future-ready skills and competencies.” We must “transform our economy to a robust innovation ecosystem that will create, scale, and grow high-wage jobs.”

That all sounds good, but most of it is just wishful thinking. Whatever policymakers decide to do, they can only achieve incremental improvements. The state’s economy is too large and dynamic for central planners in Lansing simply to transform it to their liking. 

5. The council kicks the can

The report dodges difficult decisions by leaving out important details and shirking revenue and funding questions. But the council kicks the can in an even more fundamental way.

The report says that for its recommendations to work, “structural, constitutional, and funding challenges … must be addressed.” This requires a “complete retooling of government systems and institutions.” In other words, the council’s policies hinge on someone else fixing the whole of government first, which seems, at best, highly improbable.

This provides a convenient excuse for the council, though. If policymakers adopt a recommendation and it fails to show an effect, the council can scapegoat a lack of structural reform or not enough government retooling. It might never have to play the ace up its sleeve, however. The report’s lack of specificity leaves policymakers with only a few concrete ideas to chew on. And even those might not be politically feasible. In all, there’s not much value here for policymakers.

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