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Michigan population panel files recommendations. Now the hard work begins

Michigan’s commission studying the state’s population problems handed its final report to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the Legislature on Thursday. It’s long on goals and short on how to pay for them. (Shutterstock photo)
  • Gov. Whitmer’s population commission calls for new investment in people, businesses and communities to spark growth
  • The panel did not address costs, including possibly higher taxes, but it will cost more to increase access to education, child care and the like 
  • The report also calls for K-12 and higher education funding reform, as well as more public transportation

It took six months for a bipartisan commission formed by Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to complete a report with recommendations on how to reverse Michigan’s tepid population trends.

It took less than two hours after that 85-page report was released Thursday for the recommendations to be slammed by Republican leaders in the Legislature.


Finding solutions to a population problem that has been growing for decades is hard; getting the state’s political parties to find common ground in those solutions may be just as difficult, acknowledged commission co-chair John Rakolta, Jr.

“We need to find a way to engage both sides of the aisle on this issue. Because if they don’t, it will ultimately show up at the ballot box,” said Rakolta, a Republican who served as U.S. Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates under former President Donald Trump.


If the state doesn’t take action to address its population problems, “there will be a reckoning,” he said. “I’d like to see us grab this now and not wait for that reckoning.”

The report comes as Whitmer and other Michigan leaders get serious about decades of population stagnation. The state, which is still the 10th most populous in the nation, has ranked 49th in growth since 1990, ahead of only West Virginia, contributing to job shortages statewide, an aging citizenry and other looming financial and quality-of-life challenges.

The report, which you can read here, by the 28-person Growing Michigan Together Council, calls for education reform, more public transportation and community investments in a final report issued Thursday.

The report didn’t attempt to put a price tag on its recommendations or suggest how those efforts would be funded.

The commission voted 19-1 to approve the recommendations, with the lone dissent coming from Rep. Pauline Wendzel, R-Watervliet. It will now be submitted to the governor and the Legislature, with its success or failure dependent on what happens next.

Wendzel told Bridge Michigan she agreed with some of the report’s recommendations, such as economic development and school reform, but felt the commission should have acknowledged costs, and how that could mean higher taxes.

“A lot of these ideas sound great,” Wendzel said, “but who’s going to pay for them?”

Singing a similar tune were Republican Senate Leader Aric Nesbitt, R-Porter Township, and House Leader Matt Hall, R-Richland Township, who both issued press releases criticizing the commission and Whitmer as wanting to raise taxes.

“The council’s calls for expensive programs will come with billions of dollars in new taxes, proving that the governor’s whole point for the council was to give Democrats political cover for unpopular tax hikes,” Hall said. “Of course, the commission didn’t offer any specific recommendations about which taxes to raise to pay for new spending.”

But Rakolta said complaints about higher taxes are a “red herring” from people who “don’t want to put in the work” to find solutions to some of the state’s most pressing problems.

While the panel stopped short of suggesting how the recommendations would be funded, Rakolta pointed out that the report suggested looking for efficiencies in current state spending, seeking more federal dollars, and investment by foundations and private companies to help fund the report’s recommendations.

The report’s goals are robust. For instance, it wants Michigan, by 2050, to be a Top 10 state in median household income. Michigan’s current median household income of nearly $67,000 is $22,000 below that of Utah, whose income of $89,200 is No. 10 in the nation.

It also wants to be Top 10 in post-secondary education attainment. With 33 percent of adults holding a college degree, Michigan currently ranks 34th. The No. 10 state is New York, where 40 percent of adults have at least a bachelor’s degree.

Population commission member Brian Calley, also a Republican, who is president and CEO of the Small Business Association of Michigan and was lieutenant governor under GOP Gov. Rick Snyder, said the scope of Michigan’s population problem has made it difficult to make progress. But “the priorities that have  been laid out (in the report) are going to make a lot of sense to mainstream, regular people.”

In terms of economics, the commission wants to make Michigan the “innovation hub” of the Midwest, leveraging its engineering strengths and its entrepreneurial history to create more knowledge-based jobs that are typically higher-wage jobs. 

The goal is to create new companies and businesses by leveraging the state’s huge pool of engineering talent and attracting new venture capital money that is essential for business growth. States with “robust innovation ecosystems” have “become magnets for both businesses and talent, driving population growth,” the report said.

Among the report’s other suggestions: 

  • Invest in “regional innovation districts” that would attract and retain talented people
  • Remove barriers to make it easier for businesses to grow and easier for people to start a business
  • Improve economic and workforce development programs to make them better aligned with knowledge-based jobs
  • Create a public-private “evergreen” fund that would invest in high-wage, high-growth industries like electric vehicles and healthcare

The commission also focused on helping existing residents enter the workforce, while encouraging immigration to the state. It recommends expanded access to child care and elder care to help more people get into the workforce and improving and expanding public transportation networks.

It also calls for creating incentives to attract people that require them to live and work in the state — some communities and one state already pay people to move there — while developing a service to help employers and immigrants navigate the bureaucracy of immigration to come to Michigan.

Other recommendations include:

  • Building regional public transportation systems, including “more robust passenger rail systems focused on connecting Michigan’s regional population centers.”
  • Increase the state’s housing stock by, among other things, incentivizing developers to build low- and middle-income homes.
  • Improving infrastructure, especially roads. The state “needs to examine alternative dedicated funding sources to maintain Michigan’s road infrastructure, including vehicle miles traveled fees, tolling, and better utilization of public-private partnerships,” the report recommended.
  • Reform Michigan’s education system, including examining the state’s K-12 governance system and creating a Michigan Education Guarantee standard aimed at improving the state’s educational outcomes.
  • Up to two years of college credits free for those who meet the Michigan Education Guarantee standard, through college courses either in high schools or, after graduation, on campuses.
  • Re-examine how the state funds K-12 and higher education to make “lifelong learning” more seamless.

Business Leaders for Michigan, the Detroit Regional Chamber and the Small Business Association of Michigan — whose leaders served on the population council —  released a joint statement supporting the commission’s recommendations. 

“We, as business leaders, have long advocated for cohesive, holistic solutions to address Michigan’s population crisis that can withstand disruptions, transcend politics, and initiate lasting improvement,” the statement read in part. “Getting population trends back on track is critical to ensuring our state’s economic prosperity, political influence, and competitiveness. The risk is greatest if we do nothing.”

Commission co-chair Shirley Stancato, a Democrat who serves on the Board of Governors at Wayne State University, told Bridge that after studying the state’s challenges for six months “the problem is bigger than any of us knew. It requires us to take action before it is too late.”

State Sen. Darrin Camilleri, a 31-year-old Democrat from Brownstown Township in Wayne County who served on the commission, said he is hopeful some recommendations will get support from Republicans, like expanding access to preschool and lowering regulatory barriers for businesses to grow or form.

But Camilleri said the state must address other topics — ones that would require higher taxes — to avoid a “downward spiral” of population and vitality.

Expanding education opportunities, improving the state’s infrastructure and upgrading communities will require new investments — including taxes, he said, and noting that Michigan is a relatively lower tax state (ranking 34th by one recent measure). 


“Yes, unfortunately, the politics of taxes are going to be at play here when we’re talking about investing in our communities,” Camilleri said. “We have room to grow when it comes to ways to fund our government.”

Camilleri said it’s imperative the state’s leaders address these issues. “I believe that Michigan is the best state in the country, we need others to believe that too,” he said.

Without radical change, he said, Michigan will “be going down into a downward spiral that will become very hard to come out. We are at an inflection point. I think we now have some strategies and some opportunities to change course. Now is the time to do it because I don't know that we’ll be in a position to change course unless we do something now.”

One lawmaker who will need to be won over is Wendzel, the Republican House member who voted no on the report. She said a lot of the recommendations felt like they were “copy and pasted from other reports” she’s seen in the past. “How many recommendations are out there already? We’re drowning in recommendations.

“I don’t know what the solution is,” Wendzel said. “I went in (to the commission) six months ago optimistic” that the state could find a way to reverse its population downward trajectory. 

“I’m much more pessimistic now.”

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