The Detroit News
Nov. 11, 2011
Ever since Ford Motor Co. embarrassed Michigan last year with plans to spend $11.4 billion to create campuses in Kentucky and Tennessee, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer found a new sort of religion in the quest to land jobs and investment building next-generation electric vehicles and batteries.
An election year can do that. Now that she’s secured a second term and her party will control the state Legislature for the first time in 40 years, many unanswered questions loom. Among them: Will the governor’s muscular, pro-business bias of the past year prove to be a political mirage — or will she and her party remain committed to the proposition that good politics is rooted in what’s good for Michigan business and its ability to compete?
Capital goes where it’s invited and stays where it’s wanted. As Whitmer and new Democratic leaders in the Legislature prioritize their agenda, they should remember that job-creating business leaders will be paying closer attention to what they do than what they say. They’ll watch whether, come January, Lansing’s economic policy-making leads with making Michigan more competitive or defaults to settling ideological scores.
Business will look to see whether the state’s suite of economic tools crafted in the wake of last year’s Ford humiliation will survive the partisan shift inside the Capitol — the $250 million site development fund, the so-called SOAR fund to finance incentive packages to lure the likes of Gotion Inc. and Our Next Energy Inc. and close investment deals with Ford and General Motors Co.
And there will be keen interest in boardrooms for clues to whether the new Democratic majority will seek to be aligned with business and labor, whether lawmakers understand the virtuous circle connecting policy, competitiveness and educational attainment with job-creating investment. If the smart people soon will be in charge, here’s their chance to prove it.
Our hyper-partisan political Zeitgeist does not inspire confidence. Pivoting in the first few days of the new year to repealing Michigan’s right-to-work law or reviving prevailing wage rules on publicly funded projects would signal the Democrats’ fealty to organized labor. Such signals also could renew reservations about Michigan’s business-friendly reputation among would-be investors in advanced manufacturing and battery production, to name two.
After 40 years in some form of the minority, the political urge among Democrats to wield their new majority to impose ideological wish lists will be difficult to resist. Look at the present and recent past in Lansing and Washington: if the years-long Republican run in the majority, or the behavior of both GOP and Dem control in Congress, is any indication, pragmatic bipartisan cooperation is likely to be ridiculed and rejected as the quaint vestige of a bygone era.
Chances of ideological overreach are high. In remarks the morning after her decisive win, Whitmer said her top priority is to grow Michigan and do it by focusing on auto manufacturing, expanding semiconductor chip assembly and supporting the development of clean energy — three interconnected sectors that are foundations of the modern Michigan economy.
“She understands that you have to have a vibrant business community, business climate in order to have a reason for people to want to stay here,” Quentin Messer Jr., CEO of the Michigan Economic Development Corp., told The Detroit News. She would be right, which is why economic policy-making, support for economic development efforts and inevitable education reforms should favor measurable results over rewarding politically reliable constituencies.
When Whitmer interviewed Messer for the MEDC job in March 2021, he recalled, she shared three priorities: first, Michigan needed to win more; second, the new MEDC boss should focus on recruiting new investment and jobs and leave the politics to elected officials; and, third, he should import ideas and practices widely used across his native South to outperform in economic development efforts up north.
“‘I want you to bring some of that SEC to the Big Ten,’” he recalls the governor saying. “That hasn’t changed.”
We’ll see. Political realignment can change behavior, fuel arrogance, radically alter priorities, invite the exercise of raw power — witness a long line of Republican leaders in both chambers in Lansing over recent decades. As leader of her party, Whitmer will own either the continuing wins delivered by Messer & Co. or renewed complaints that Michigan is backsliding to the bad ol’ days of slow regulatory approval, higher business taxes and policy favoring labor despite potential risk to job-creating investment.
For years, Democrats in the minority in Lansing sought bipartisan cooperation from Republicans only to be marginalized by the majority. Now Democrats will get a shot to show they will live by the standards they’ve said they wanted, especially because slim majorities in both houses mean Democrats will need to work with Republicans to move consequential legislation.