Detroit Regional Chamber > Advocacy > Dec. 15, 2023 | This Week in Government: Education Leads Population Report, but No Clear Funding

Dec. 15, 2023 | This Week in Government: Education Leads Population Report, but No Clear Funding

December 15, 2023
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Each week, the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Government Relations team, in partnership with Gongwer, provides members with a collection of timely updates from both local and state governments. Stay in the know on the latest legislation, policy priorities, and more.

Education Leads Population Report, but No Clear Funding Suggested

After six months of work, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer‘s population task force voted to send its report with recommendations on how to reverse 40 years of dwindling population growth to the executive office.

Although the Growing Michigan Together Council made nods to challenges including housing, transportation, placemaking, and infrastructure, the bulk of the report focused on the state’s education system. The proposal would create pathways to seamlessly transition students from early childhood education through at least two years of post-secondary education.

The report did not propose tax increases, or any other means of increasing state revenue to achieve the recommendations.

“Over the past six months, Michiganders shared with the council the same desires my family had when we came to this state: strong communities, robust educational opportunities and welcoming neighborhoods. Our recommendations today all aim to build out our state’s strengths and target our weaknesses,” said Rep. Alabas Farhat (D-Dearborn), the only member of the council under 25. “Working with everyone across background, place and peninsula to prioritize our key shared values, we will build a brighter future that makes the case for why everyone – especially young people – should become Michiganders.”

The report was approved 19-1. Rep. Pauline Wendzel (R-Watervliet) was the only member to vote no.

Wendzel objected to the report because the council did not propose any mechanism for funding the recommendations.

“The big thing is the funding,” she said. “I know, as a legislator that is one of the hardest things, right? Without raising taxes?”

For the most part, though, Wendzel said she supported the content of the report.

“I agree with several of the recommendations,” Wendzel said. “My heartburn here with the recommendation is that so much of it is already happening in the Legislature or has been tried before … I thought this group was formed to come up with new and innovative ideas, and I was kind of disappointed on what was come up with.”

In a statement on Thursday, Whitmer said she was looking forward to reviewing the contents of the report in detail.

“The Growing Michigan Together Council focused on actions we can take to grow our state’s population and economy while protecting our quality of life and cost of living,” Whitmer said. “I am grateful to the bipartisan members of the council and the workgroups for doing the hard work of tackling these big questions. In the months ahead, I look forward to reviewing the council’s report in detail and working with my partners in the Legislature on solutions to grow the economy and population.”

ADDING TWO YEARS OF PUBLIC EDUCATION: The most detailed section of the recommendation focused on strategies to improve education in Michigan.

It called for significantly more coordination between a Balkanized system that includes about 540 traditional public school districts (each run by its own locally elected school board), about 300 charter schools (each run individually), 28 community colleges, (each run by its own regionally elected board) and 15 public universities (each nearly fully autonomous from the state with its own governing board).

Then there’s the hundreds of nonpublic K-12 schools as well as 25 private colleges and universities.

“There’s a lot of factors and dynamics that will attract and retain a population in a given state …Talent and having increasingly higher educated residents will be a key factor in Michigan’s success moving forward,” said Daniel Hurley, Chief Executive Officer of the Michigan Association of State Universities. “The focus on education is a good one.”

A decade ago, discussions about how to increase population centered around tax policy, Hurley said, but that misses the human element.

“A state’s talent capacity is the new currency,” he said. “That is the most important factor, especially for employers, and especially employers that are in the high-tech, well-paying industries.”

Pivoting to a PreK-14 system was the biggest change the council recommended.

The council’s education proposal would take Michigan beyond Whitmer’s current goal for universal PreK by providing two additional years of postsecondary course work for any student who reaches the Michigan Education Guarantee standard. The guarantee sets a common standard that all students should meet and commits to providing up to an additional year of education after 12th grade if students need more time to meet the standard.

“We’re trying to put a marker in the sand and say it’s a message to our young adults, but equally to our employers, so the employer is going to have confidence that your future workforce will have a certain set of competencies, skills and abilities,” Hurley said.

Those credits could be taken in high school, at a public university, or college or in any qualifying career or technical pathways. Additional courses would be offered at no cost to students for up to two years.

The coordination between community colleges and four-year colleges and universities will need work, said Brandy Johnson, president of the Michigan Community College Association.

“It’s hard to do between 28 public community colleges, 15 public universities, three tribal colleges, and 25 independent colleges,” she said. “It’s tricky to build out those transfer pathways, but I think it’s really necessary.”

The state already has a set of 10 courses that are universally accepted amongst all community colleges and universities in the state through the Michigan Transfer Agreement. There’s also already a strong dual enrollment system through much of the state.

Johnson highlighted teacher prep coursework as one area that would benefit from improved transfer pathways.

“There’s a lot of credit leakage,” she said. “Ensuring that students that have associate’s degrees, enter into university as juniors at junior status, without having to retake courses and still be able to complete withing 60 credits – or roughly two years – would be a huge win for Michigan.”

If the state takes a bigger leadership role in coordinating those transfer pathways, colleges and universities will find a way to get there, Johnson said.

“I’m excited to see these recommendations because historically, the state has not taken any sort of leadership role to transfer because it’s always been thought of as more a local issue,” she said.

Still, Johnson said she hoped the answer wouldn’t be more bureaucratic processes related to compliance at the state level.

“The state can provide very powerful incentives for these reforms,” Johnson said.

The council’s proposal builds on the progress the state has made in education during the last few years, Hurley said.

“Having a sort of universal, free, first two years of public college or university is the natural next step,” he said. “Between Michigan Reconnect … and the Michigan Achievement Scholarship, there’s been some big investments.”

The report also recommends continuing to fund existing state programs, specifically highlighting Michigan Reconnect and the Great Start Readiness Program that provides preschool to 4-year-olds whose household income if in a family of four is $90,000 or less in the current school year.

The council put forward recommendations on how to achieve that goal, including forming a workgroup to agree on an efficient and fair funding model, beginning an application process to allow high schools to become accredited providers of postsecondary credits, negotiating credit transfers, and dual credit arrangements.

The report also recommended redesigning the funding formula for K-12 schools that would fully fund special education and English language learner programs, providing additional funds for students from low-income families, guaranteeing extracurriculars and higher-level classes for all students, better coverage of capital expenditures, and providing stable funding for districts.

A statewide equity collation praised the council’s recommendations for supporting the Opportunity Index, a mechanism codified by the Legislature in June to provide additional funding for students from low-income families.

“These recommendations are an important next step to ensuring the Michigan can achieve its goal of being a Top Ten state for education,’ said a statement from Mike Jandernoa, founder and chairman of 42 North Partners and chairman of the West Michigan Policy Forum Policy Committee. “Our students’ futures – and the health of our state – hang in the balance.”

NEEDS HIGHLIGHTED, BUT BLUEPRINT FOR DEVELOPMENT, HOUSING FUZZY: The report also highlighted the need for improvements to economic development, infrastructure, transportation, and housing, but the council didn’t provide the same level of detailed policy suggestions in these areas.

“I was optimistic in being on this committee and looking for different answers from different minds across the whole state from varying backgrounds,” Wendzel said. “And I just feel it was kind of toothless.”

The council recommended general ideas around economic development, such as developing an economic growth plan to make Michigan a hub for innovation in the Midwest. The report suggested ideas such as “innovation districts” framed by anchor institutions and high-wage, high-growth industries and economic and workforce development incentives centered around knowledge economy jobs.

Other economic development recommendations included lowering barriers to increase Michigan’s workforce participation, including access to child care, elder care, education, and transportation. The council also suggested Michigan pilot retention and attraction incentives that require young people to live and work in Michigan.

This will “contribute to growing incomes, a stronger tax base and community well-being,” the report said.

The report also emphasized international immigration to grow the state’s population.

To that end, the council recommended streamlining processes for employers and immigrants to participate in the workforce, such as making it easier to obtain a driver’s license, maximizing the use of certain visas, and increasing language access.

The state could also create a process to ensure that licensed or credentialed professionals from outside the U.S. have relevant documentation translated and applied to Michigan’s standards.

The report also stressed the need to increase Michigan’s housing stock. The council recommended updating zoning, incentivizing development, and expanding equitable down-payment assistance programs to eliminate barriers to homeownership.

“We recognize that we didn’t get here overnight, but we are working hard and moving quickly to solve these challenges,’ Michigan State Housing Development Authority Executive Director Amy Hovey said in a statement. “We are grateful to the council for recognizing the importance of down payment assistance programs, the need for fostering walkable neighborhoods, and ensuring the construction and preservation of attainable, affordable homes for people of all ages in a community of their choice.”

CONSERVATIVE CRITICISM: Republicans and conservative groups were critical of the report and the council, saying the recommendations would lead to new 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,” House Minority Leader Matt Hall (R-Richland Township) said in a statement. “The commission didn’t offer any specific recommendations about which taxes to raise to pay for new spending, and Democrats wasted our entire $9 billion surplus before hearing from the council … we can’t spend our way out of our problems.”

Senate Minority Leader Aric Nesbitt (R-Porter Township) was also critical.

“While I’m glad Gov. Whitmer’s council didn’t give her every tax hike on her Christmas wish list, I’m sure she’ll still use this report as an excuse to raid the pocketbooks of struggling Michiganders,” Nesbitt said in a statement. “Michigan’s slowed population growth is a serious concern for the future of our state but making it more expensive to live and raise a family here will force more people to seek prosperity and happiness elsewhere.”

The Michigan Freedom Fund knocked the report, saying the council called for tax increases.

“The council is so far removed from reality that for them, increasing taxes for big-government projects makes more sense than cutting taxes from Michigan families,” said Mary Drabik, communications director for the Michigan Freedom Fund, in a statement.

Although the report didn’t contain any recommendations for higher taxes, some groups noted that the recommendations highlighted the need to increase revenue to improve schools, infrastructure, public transportation, and other programs and services.

“Since we can’t just print money, how do we get more revenue? We reform our tax structure to be more equitable so everyday Michiganders don’t pay the same tax rate as millionaires and billionaires,” said a statement from Fund MI Future Executive Director MoReno Taylor II. “Rather than allowing wealthy corporations to rig the rules in their favor so they get endless tax break, we must demand that they pay their fair share so we can create communities where working families flourish.”

The West Michigan Policy Forum also criticized the report, saying it would require additional spending and would be a non-starter for population growth.

“Sadly, this is not a plan to grow Michigan’s population; the fear is that when the additional spending is paid for it’ll become a how-to manual for Tennessee, Texas, and Florida to attract even more Michigan transplants,” said Jase Bolger, policy advisor for the West Michigan Policy Forum, in a statement. “This report seems to be long on problems, but short on bold solutions. … We need to take a cue from the fastest growing states in our country and enact policies like freeing Michigan’s people to create, innovate and grow jobs and our population.”

CALLS FOR CHANGE: Members of the council said that they hoped the report would be used to create positive change in Michigan.

“This type of report cannot sit on a desk or on a shelf and collect dust,” said Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of Detroit Public Schools and a member of the council. “We all are growing tired of giving our time and effort but not seeing things done and not seeing things happen. Now’s the time. Our data is clear that we need different changes, systemic changes, hard decisions, different levels of funding, different levels of support and different levels of collaboration.”

Ambassador John Rakolta, chair of the council, said he hoped the Legislature would take the report seriously.

“We’ve been in decline for 70 years, and I think we have the opportunity to turn the corner,” he said.

Whitmer Hoping Third Time’s the Charm on Vehicle Credit

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer‘s proposals for a tax credit to encourage the sale of new electric vehicles went nowhere in the Republican Legislature of 2022 nor the Democratic Legislature of 2023 so she’s broadening it to include hybrids and internal combustion vehicles in hopes of resuscitating the concept in 2024.

Whitmer said Wednesday she plans to ask the Legislature for a $25 million appropriations in her State of the State address to fund the rebate program for new vehicles. It would not include used vehicles.

Under the new proposal, tax rebates would depend on the type of engine and labor used to build it:

  • $2,500 for a new battery or hybrid vehicle made by union-represented labor;
  • $2,000 for a new battery or hybrid vehicle made by non-union labor;
  • $1,500 on a new internal combustion vehicle by union-represented labor; and
  • $1,000 on a new internal combustion vehicle made by non-union workers.

A statement from the Governor’s press office said the “state tax rebate” would be applied to the final price of the vehicle at the time of purchase. The auto dealership would contact the Department of Treasury to receive a tax rebate voucher once the customer selects the vehicle they want to purchase.

The program would end once all $25 million has been spent. That means there would be enough credits for between 10,000 and 25,000 vehicles, a small fraction of new vehicle sales in Michigan in a year.

In 2022 and 2023, Whitmer proposed a sales/use tax credit to the Legislature solely for the purchase of new electric vehicles in a bid to reduce the cost and interest more residents in buying them. Electric vehicles generally cost far more than internal combustion engine vehicles. Neither proposal moved in the Legislature.

A series of questions to the Governor’s press office about whether a bill would be needed from the Legislature besides the appropriation, why the governor broadened her past proposals to include hybrids and electrics and the details about what tax would be the subject of the rebate were not answered prior to publication.

The governor’s Statement included supportive comments from the Michigan Automobile Dealers Association, MICHauto, and the Blue Green Alliance.

Three EV Projects Approved by MSF Board, One With Whitmer Assistance

A Volkswagen-backed automotive manufacturer, a Turkish electric vehicle supplier, and an Oklahoma-based drive-train company each received Michigan Business Development Grants on Tuesday from the Michigan Strategic Fund Board.

The board awarded up to $10 million for Scout Motors for a development in Novi, an estimated $5.46 million to Norm Fasteners for a development in Bath Township, and up to $2 million to ATC Drivetrain in Holland.

Scout Motors is headquartered in Virginia but plans to establish a new research and development facility in Novi with Strategic Fund support. The company is poised to make an $11 million capital investment and plans to create 200 high-wage jobs in support of the state’s pledge to become a leader in future mobility and vehicle electrification. The Michigan Economic Development Corporation said the project would bring engineering, design, and development jobs to southeast Michigan through a partnership with Scout Motors, described as an innovative and growing manufacturer.

“We’re thrilled to welcome Scout Motors’ new R&D facility to Michigan, creating 200 good-paying engineering jobs right here in Michigan. Winning this investment proves that Michigan offers the best opportunity for automotive companies – from R&D to manufacturing,” Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said in a statement. “I was honored to represent Team Michigan on my international trade mission at the beginning of the year, helping close this deal and secure this cutting-edge facility in Michigan as we round out 2023. As I’ve said throughout the year, I am committed to going anywhere and working with anyone to deliver for Michiganders here at home.”

Whitmer met with executives from the company during her international trade mission in January.

MEDC Chief Executive Officer Quentin Messer Jr., the president and chair of the MSF Board, said the inclusion of Scout Motors would help the state in its pursuit to be an electric vehicle hub.

“This project represents the kind of R&D investment we continue to put Michigan in a position to win through a Make It in Michigan strategy,” Messer said in statement. “We are grateful to Gov. Whitmer, legislators from both parties, and local officials in Novi, Oakland County, and the Detroit Region for their continued support for our programs that help make announcements like today’s possible.”

The facility in Novi would help further that goal as it plans to be a hub of innovation for Michigan to supply electric vehicle advancements across the nation.

“Our new vehicles will honor Scout’s hard-working heritage while injecting fresh American ingenuity to create a new era of iconic all-purpose vehicles,” Scott Keogh, president and Chief Executive Officer of Scout Motors, said in a statement. “As we design and engineer our vehicles, Michigan is the perfect place to establish our Innovation Center due to its deep automotive roots, continued investment in innovation, and ability to attract and train a talented, diverse workforce.”

An additional $150,000 support grant will be allocated to the project by Oakland County.

“In Oakland County, we are actively invested in the success of advanced manufacturing and the mobility industry of the future. We are excited to collaborate with the state and Detroit Regional Partnership to help attract Scout Motors and its new research and development facility to Novi,” Oakland County Executive Dave Coulter said in a statement. “We welcome this project and look forward to working with Scout to introduce the company to the skilled and talented workers who call Oakland County home.”

The project has support from several lawmakers, including U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Ann Arbor), U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens (D-Birmingham), Sen. Rosemary Bayer (D-Keego Harbor), and Rep. Kelly Breen (D-Novi).

“This investment is the result of Michigan leading the way in the transition to electric vehicles, and Novi is a premier destination for the future mobility sector,” Breen said. “Michigan is open for business, and this announcement is further proof.”

Norm Fasteners, an EV supplier from Turkey, was viewed as a major win for the MEDC, as it represents the single largest key economic development project for MEDC Region 7 this year, said Bob Trezise, president and Chief Executive Officer of the Lansing Economic Area Partnership.

“We’ve been engaged with Norm Fasteners for seven years now, and it is really a great economic development story. Norm Fasteners checks all the boxes of the foreign direct investment EV supply chain,” Trezise said. “The location of the plant is within just a couple miles of our urban population center of Lansing and East Lansing (with a plan for) 200 jobs at $31.41 an hour, which is very high average. It’s a major new tax base and it’s supported by the local schools and community. It’s 365,000-square feet and 19 acres of property that is meant to be developed.”

The request for Norm Fasteners was a $1.6 million Michigan Business Development Grant and a $3.86 million Strategic Site Readiness Program grant, awarded to the Lansing Economic Area Partnership.

The Michigan Business Development Grant awarded to ATC Drivetrain would also help the state achieve its EV dominance goals, said Sean Kammer, a business development project manager with MEDC Regions 9 and 10.

Kammer said the grant would create 163 new jobs while the company invests $7.9 million in Holland and Allegan County. The company is a top supplier for remanufactured transmissions around the globe. It expanded with the recent acquisition of several European companies, and has operations in the United Kingdom and China, Kammer added.

The company’s expansion of its Holland facility to 170,000-square feet and would dedicate its energy on EV battery manufacturing.

Project funding was approved unanimously by the MSF Board.

Benson Makes Appeal for More Governmental Transparency With New FOIA Tool

Michigan needs to do more for government transparency, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said during a press conference Tuesday where she unveiled a new online tool for Freedom of Information Act requests from the Department of State.

Benson said she was happy to see Gov. Gretchen Whitmer sign financial disclosure legislation into law last week, but that those laws could not be the last step Michigan takes toward transparency.

“We’ve been very clear about the need and also about the need for us to be able to enforce whatever protections they enact,” Benson said. “We hope to see this made a priority in the new year.

Michigan is ranked last out of the 50 states for government transparency and accountability by the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit investigative journalism organization.

Benson said her hope was that lawmakers would get to work on legislation to improve transparency in 2024, starting with expanding FOIA to the governor’s office and the Legislature.

“Michigan is just one of two states exempting the governor and one of eight where the Legislature is exempt,” she said. “That needs to change.”

Benson also said Michigan should require corporations to disclose 501c3, 501c4, and 527 political donations and prohibit foreign influence companies from making unlimited donations to super PACs and ballot question committees.

To address donations to political nonprofits, Benson said the state would have to reexamine its definition of political speech. Her office would also need more authority to respond to complaints arising from broader disclosure requirements.

Other changes include prohibiting state contractors from making unlimited political donations, limiting the number of leadership PACs a candidate can create and a mandatory cooling-off period from being in the Legislature to working as a lobbyist.

“Many of these are low-hanging fruit and shouldn’t be a heavy lift,” Benson said. “We continue to hope that leaders in the House and the Senate will, as they’ve said over and over they intend to do, make good on their commitment to these priorities as well.”

To increase transparency within the Department of State, Benson showed a new online tool people can use to request documents from her agency.

“Government agencies need to be doing all that we can to improve people’s access to documents, because at the end of the day, government documents belong to the people,” Benson said.

To that end, Benson said the new online tool was created to make it easier for the public to request records.

“It’s fast. It’s easy. It eliminates layers of bureaucracy,” Benson said. “The launch of this tool is especially timely as we enter 2024, a presidential election year.”

In 2023, the Bureau of Elections saw a 300% increase in FOIA requests per day over 2021, Benson said, and the department expects that number to be much higher in 2024.

One of the features of the portal is that once a FOIA request has been made, many of the responsive documents will be publicly available on the secretary of state’s website. Benson said that for some documents, the department has seen as many as 150 different requests seeking the same information.

“Anyone can go online to see what documents have already been requested and can review most of those documents without having to make an additional, separate FOIA request,” Benson said. “This new tool will manage those requests efficiently and effectively in a way that also alleviates the burden on a number of our staff and the economic impact as well.”

The documents will be searchable by keywords and will remain publicly available online for one year after they’re published. Documents with highly personal information or that involve the qualified voter file won’t be published online.

People will also be able to pay for the documents online via credit or debit cards, which previously

wasn’t an option.

Nick Pigeon, executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, spoke at the press conference to highlight the importance of FOIA requests for holding government officials accountable.

“FOIA is an important accountability mechanism shining a light on the affairs of public officials who serve, knowing that any public record can be requested,” Pigeon said. “The proposal for an online system for granting FOIA request can expedite the process and make it more difficult for public bodies to slow roll or comply with requests or incorrectly deny information that they must disclose.”

Pigeon said public bodies can make obtaining information more difficult with excessive fees, partial requests and stalling tactics, and an online system will alleviate many of those issues.

“Voters have the right to know,” said Kim Murphy-Kovalick, programs director for Voters Not Politicians, which has advocated for legislation to increase government transparency. “The people of Michigan … have the right to know who is influencing policy outcomes, how policy is made and the way the state’s resources are allocated.”

The Department of State is the first agency to offer the online FOIA system.

“I would hope other agencies would follow our lead and similarly make their record accessible as well in this way,” Benson said.

Peters’ Semiconductor Chip Legislation Passed by U.S. Senate

The U.S. Senate unanimously passed legislation aimed at strengthening federal efforts to expand domestic manufacturing of semiconductor chips, sponsored by U.S. Sen. Gary Peters along with Democratic and Republican senators.

The act would direct the U.S. Department of Commerce’s SelectUSA program to work with federal agencies and state development organizations to create strategies to attract investment in domestic semiconductor manufacturers and supply chains. The bill spearheaded by Peters (D-Bloomfield Township) would address the ongoing shortage of semiconductor technologies.

“In order to remain a global economic powerhouse in the 21st century, we must continue to build on the investments we made in the CHIPS and Science Act to boost U.S. production of semiconductor chips, which we know will dictate the future of technology and innovation,” Peters said in a statement. “My bipartisan bill would do just that by strengthening our efforts to attract investment in American semiconductor manufacturers as well as their suppliers, reducing our dependence on foreign producers for these critical technologies, and creating good-paying jobs here at home.”

Under the act, SelectUSA would need to engage with states’ economic development organization, like the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, to address gaps the organizations face with attracting foreign direct investment to activities related to semiconductor manufacturing.

“We are grateful to Senator Peters and his colleagues for serving as catalysts in a bipartisan commitment to bet on American workers,” said MEDC Chief Executive Officer Quentin Messer Jr. in a statement. “Michigan has worked tirelessly over the last two years to enhance our competitiveness in the semiconductor industry: We signed an MOU to establish a global semiconductor center of excellence (M-STAR); provided the largest investment in state history to local higher education institutions to promote semiconductor jobs and training; and secured capital investments by semiconductor companies or suppliers to expand. We look forward to continued partnership with federal officials to deliver more employment and entrepreneurial opportunities for Michiganders in this vital sector.”

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