True leaders needed to make new Michigan Dream a reality

John Austin and the Michigan Economic Center at Prima Civitas (a new and exciting player in Lansing policy discussions that we jokingly refer to around here as the "other MEC") recently launched the new "Michigan Dream At Risk" project that's worth a look. In short, it showcases in images, words and numbers the uncomfortable but unsurprising reality of Michigan's perpetually beleaguered economy.

Using Michigan's historic and current state and local budget allocations as proxies for priorities, the Michigan Dream at Risk project's narrative and four-minute video intro highlight our shared shame-potholed roads and shuttered storefronts, struggling families and failing schools-and prescribe a healthy dose of investment in a few critical areas: education, infrastructure and community services, a clean environment, etc.

Coupled with the new "State Policies Matter" report and accompanying "Tale of Two States" blog series from the team at Michigan Future, Inc., a clear case is made for increasing investment in public goods, rather than cutting our way to prosperity.

The problem is that Michigan voters rarely face that kind of clear-cut choice, and our elected leaders seem unwilling to raise revenue themselves. Instead, we get convoluted ballot initiatives like Proposal 1, in which funding is provided for our communities but only if businesses get (more) tax breaks and the actual revenue burden gets shifted (again) into an unknown future. Or for an even more frustrating example, look at the failure of transportation funding initiatives; despite polling with broad support, the issue of raising the basic revenues needed to fix our existing roads gets tied up in knots in the Legislature and goes nowhere - not even to the ballot. The roads stay the same: bad.

Anyone who watches the news-here or anywhere in the country-knows some version of Michigan's economic and social struggles. Our decades-long fall from grace is a narrative with easy and all-too memorable icons: Big 3 bailouts, bankrupt Detroit, etc., etc.

But Michigan residents are ready to move out of the past. And we need to put some new icons on the map to do it.

What we are missing is leadership willing to take us there. True leadership doesn't just say we need less (government, taxes, bureaucracy, etc.). And it doesn't just ask for money. Leadership paints a picture of a viable and enviable future that both inspires and unites people, and then puts the proposals on the table to take us there.

Real leadership-the kind that helps people imagine a brighter future, builds public support for it, and puts real dollars into building it-is the only thing that will move Michigan forward.

It starts with vision. What exactly should Michigan's people be looking forward to? What do the next 50 years look like for our state? If we make the investments highlighted in the Michigan Dream materials, or shift gears and take Minnesota's investment approach to prosperity, where would it take us, and how is that future different-and better-than Michigan's past?

A few years ago, my colleagues at this MEC and I tried to paint a picture of that future world - a Michigan of vibrant cities, reliable and diverse transportation systems and abundant fresh water. It's not a perfect vision by any means, but it's a start, and we continue to believe that knowing where we're headed is the first step to getting there.

To advance the conversation started by Austin and Michigan Future, Inc., we need get more people engaged and craft some agreement on where we're headed. That's the job of leaders.

Then we as residents need to demand that those same leaders come together and put solid funding policy proposals on the table. Investments in the future are not optional - they are the foundation of a future Michigan that will attract new residents, inspire new creative industries and celebrate our assets.

And that's a future worth investing in.


Photo courtesy Rachel Kramer via Flickr.

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