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Michigan needs to step it up if it wants to compete for jobs

Feb 4, 2017

Donald Trump is not making things easy for business and state government, and that includes Gov. Rick Snyder’s Michigan.

Trump’s temporary immigration ban is raising tensions in a state with one of the nation’s largest Arab populations. His executive order is not popular in Dearborn. It’s tearing at families and angering allies. And it’s outraged many in the business community who hire talent globally – at least those willing to say so publicly.

Just a few days ago, companies like Ford Motor were in a deep bromance with the newly elected president. Now those same execs say this new policy does not comport with Blue Oval values. They’re not alone. Silicon Valley tech giants are pushing back, whatever the consequences.

Meantime, Trump is laying out a competitive challenge to the nation’s governors. In warning business against investing outside the United States, he says “you have 50 wonderful governors to negotiate with. So it’s not like we’re taking away competition.”

No, he’s increasing it. The president is conjuring a new form of interstate competition for jobs and investment that is using the power of the presidency to pit state against state. That could leave the likes of Michigan on the outside looking in.

The president is conjuring a new form of interstate competition for jobs and investment that is using the power of the presidency to pit state against state.

Why, you ask? Start with Lansing’s official skepticism of economic development incentives, especially among Republicans in the state House. The hangover of the Granholm-era tax credits for Detroit’s automakers left the GOP scandalized, particularly those who detected a strong whiff of crony capitalism.

House Republicans should rethink their ideological rigor. The president whose road to the White House ran through the industrial Midwest is betting he can create a jobs bonanza that produces winners and losers. The states that don’t have the tools to play will be losers.

Hey Michigan, can you say opportunity?

Doug Rothwell of Business Leaders for Michigan predicts Trump will “unleash a flurry to bring jobs back to the U.S.” He says Trump’s focus on re-energizing American manufacturing should create “an urgency to act” in Lansing.

He’s right.

Michigan lawmakers need to ask a simple question: Just how well-equipped is the state to compete for the jobs and investment Trump is likely to wring from CEOs he likes to summon to the White House?

The answer: Not as competitive as it could be. That should be a major concern in Lansing because cornerstones of corporate Michigan – Detroit’s automakers, Whirlpool of Benton Harbor and Dow Chemical of Midland – are already on Trump’s manufacturing radar. Will they deliver results?

This is a game Michigan needs to prepare to play and win.

This is a game Michigan needs to prepare to play and win.

Rothwell’s group once again is pushing its “Good Jobs for Michigan” initiative. It would capture a portion of income taxes to reward companies for creating better paying jobs in the state.

It’s not the only idea, and it’s sure to encounter resistance from those who don’t get the fact that these jobs might not otherwise materialize. But the state needs to prepare for this next round of competition because it’s coming – one way or the other.

Daniel Howes is a columnist at The Detroit News. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.