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Editorial: Creating impact through conversation

From The Detroit News

May 29, 2013

MACKINAC ISLAND — The annual schmooze-fest that begins here today offers an opportunity to bring together Michigan’s business, political and civic leaders to talk about solving the state’s problems.

This year, the agenda for the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Mackinac Policy Conference focuses heavily on education, and that’s smart. Michigan’s recovery will hit a ceiling if it can’t offer a skilled workforce to employers willing to locate here.

Currently, there are roughly 70,000 jobs going unfilled in a state with an unemployment rate of roughly 8 percent, largely because jobless residents lack the skills to fill those positions. That’s unacceptable.

Skilled labor is vital to technical industries, including high-tech manufacturing. Employers will not bring jobs to a state that can’t fill them with qualified workers.

The conference will also tackle obstacles to a full manufacturing renaissance in Michigan, dealing with such issues as taxes, energy and talent recruitment.

Plenty of business happens on the island apart from the formal agenda as well.

This year, expect an emphasis of those side discussions to be on finding a way to fund infrastructure needs. Gov. Rick Snyder wants $1.2 billion a year in new revenue for road and bridge repairs. Lawmakers are resisting raising fuel taxes or registration fees.

Maintaining a workable infrastructure is essential to Michigan’s competitiveness. Snyder and lawmakers agreed to use part of the budget surplus to fund repairs this year. That’s a stop-gap that doesn’t answer the long-term need.

Policymakers and business leaders should use the opportunity presented on the island to negotiate a permanent solution.

Similarly, talks between the governor and lawmakers on expanding Medicare and creating health care exchanges to comply with Obamacare have gone nowhere. There will be plenty of health care industry executives on Mackinac who could help bring them together. Obamacare is not going away. Michigan has to find a way to make the new health care reality work as well as possible for its citizens.

Politics always plays a key role on the island. Conference attendees will get what for many will be their first look at the Detroit mayoral candidates, who debate Thursday evening.

Republicans come to the island without an announced candidate for next year’s U.S. Senate race, while Democrats expect to fill their void on the 2014 gubernatorial race with the announcement by former Congressman Mark Schauer that he’s in.

Both parties will be laying the groundwork for what surely will be an intense and expensive election campaign season.

It’s an important week for Michigan. Dialogue is the first step in problem solving, and the environs of the Grand Hotel and Mackinac Island lend themselves well to conversation.

If by the time the conference ends Friday, answers have been found to at least some of the tough challenges facing our state, it will be time well spent.