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Gubernatorial candidates vetted at West Michigan Policy Forum

September 17, 2010

Day two of the West Michigan Regional Policy Forum began with the editors of the GR Press and Crain’s Detroit Business acting as “moderators” for gubernatorial candidates Virg Bernero and Rick Snyder.

Choosing a business paper editor and a business friendly for-profit newspaper editor made it clear from the beginning what kind of questions would be asked of the candidates and which would not. It was also clear that the two candidates were being vetted to the members of the West Michigan regional Policy Forum, since the questions fit right into the legislative agenda of the group, particularly the 5 main directives established in 2008.

Virg Bernero

The format was to ask them questions one at a time on stage, with Bernero going first. The moderators asked the same questions to both Bernero and Snyder. When was asked what he thought about the Michigan Business Tax (MBT), Bernero said he would eliminate the surcharge and then look to reform the MBT. Bernero then went out of his way to say he was pro-business and that he has had the endorsement the Lansing Chamber of Commerce both times he ran for Mayor.

Bernero also said that he would not add any new taxes for small businesses, but made no additional commitment on issues of taxation, such as a progressive income tax policy for businesses. “I’m willing to consider anything that will help get us off the ground.”

On the matter of job creation, Bernero said that the main thing to do is to figure out a way to bring investment capital into the state. Bernero is proposing the Main Street Bank initiative, based on what North Dakota does. Bernero also wants to attract foreign businesses to Michigan and set up green manufacturing zones.

The Democratic candidate was then asked what he thought about Michigan being a right-to-work state. Bernero said he is definitely against the idea and then added that Lansing just won a manufacturing contract against states that have a right-to-work policies in order to underscore his point that you don’t need it to be economically competitive.

The GR Press editor then asked if economic development should be targeted, such as the film industry and green manufacturing or should it be broader. Bernero said that you have to look at individual cases, but in order for it to be successful it needs to be more broad, with an emphasis on manufacturing.

When asked about what he thought about the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC), Bernero believes that the MEDC needs to be held more accountable and more creative. “If there are things that are not making money for the state, such as film making, then the state should not be supporting it.”

Mary Kramer (editor of Crain’s) asked Bernero about jobs again and wondered what do you do when you have jobs but unqualified people. Bernero said that what he has done as Mayor of Lansing was to partner with MSU to help facilitate students and graduates to stay and work in Michigan. The gubernatorial candidate also thought that we needed to continue the Michigan Works program and even expand what it does.

On the matter of health care Bernero said we need to figure out ways to attract and retain nurses and doctors to Michigan, particularly with primary care and not just specialized medicine. When asked what he would do to look at health care costs for Michigan he would set up more community-based health care centers so that people don’t use emergency rooms as a primary health care location.

Bernero was then asked what he would do to deal with the budget deficit for Michigan. His response was that he has balanced the budget in Lansing the past 5 years in a row. Bernero said there are no real easy answers, but he did say government needs to be more efficient. Bernero even went as far as to suggest that local governments should consolidate.

The next question addressed the issue of how to fund public education. Bernero expressed concern over the growing disparity within K-12 education across the state. He does support private education and any other form as long as it gets “positive results,” even though he did not qualify what he meant by that.

Bernero was then asked about the Democratic attack ads on outsourcing of jobs. Bernero said that people in Michigan are suffering from free trade, not fair trade. Bernero said he is a supporter of capitalism, but felt that there is a double standard on trade policy between the US and China in particular. This was an interesting comment since Bernero earlier said he wanted to get foreign companies to do business in Michigan which would potentially have the same impact on communities in other parts of the world.

The Democratic candidate for Governor was then asked about the label of being the “Angry Mayor,” a titled given to him after an interview he did on Fox news when another GM plant was being shut down in Lansing. Bernero said he gets angry as would anyone should when people lose their jobs, but he went on to reiterate that when he ran for Mayor of Lansing he ran as the pro-business candidate and received the support of most local Republicans. He also said that some of the unions in Lansing hate him and that he is not a “tool of big labor.”

Rick Snyder

Snyder said the Michigan Business Tax needs to be eliminated and replaced with a flat 6% corporate tax. “This will shift Michigan from a job killer tax state to a job creating tax state,” Snyder said.

Snyder doesn’t think Michigan needs a progressive income tax, rather the state needs to be more efficient and stop spending money on programs that do not work. Snyder believes that the goal of government is not to support itself, but to serve the public and get out of the way of business so that the economy can flourish.

On the matter of job creation Snyder says that it is less about bringing new businesses from outside of the state and instead provide opportunities and incentives for people currently in Michigan to create new jobs and businesses.

When asked what he thought about right-to-work what Snyder said was that he was opposed to it because he thinks it further divides people. He does think that Michigan businesses and labor need to come together to figure about ways to maintain and create new jobs instead of having policies that are divisive.

On the issue of targeted economic development like film industry incentives he clearly opposed it since it is a “winners and losers model.” Snyder says he used to be with the MEDC when it was winning awards, so he is in favor of creating a healthy economic development climate. Snyder again said that Michigan does not need to court companies from outside the state or country, instead we need to provide incentives and opportunities for existing businesses in Michigan to grow.

On the matter of getting qualified people to jobs that are available the Republican candidate felt there needs to be more coordination amongst groups that provide job training, such as Michigan Works and community colleges.

Snyder’s position on primary health care is to emphasize wellness and prevention as the two mechanisms to reduce costs. He believes that there needs to be more regional/community-based primary health care services.

When asked about balancing the state budget Snyder said we need to be more efficient and eliminate programming that do not have positive, measurable outcomes. Snyder also believes we need to have better government employee accountability. The Republican candidate also feels that we need to be honest with the public and share the facts about what the current debt is at the state. Once people really know what we are faced with we can better move forward to make changes.

On the matter of K-12 education Snyder said that instead of beginning the discussion with funding it should be focused on how do we better educate the state’s children. Snyder thinks that there is adequate funding that exists, but it is currently not being spent well.

When asked about what he will do if elected is that Snyder said he has a vision and a plan to turn Michigan around, even though he did not qualify what that vision and plan is.

On the matter of debating Bernero, Snyder said he would do 3 TV debates and he wanted to do them before the absentee ballots go out. He went on to talk about what happened recently with Bernero at one of his scheduled public gatherings but felt that town hall meetings are better because he would rather take questions and have a dialogue with citizens.

Snyder believes that free enterprise works. He is not anti-manufacturing, but he also thinks that Michigan needs to diversify and not be stuck in just an automotive and manufacturing jobs focus. Snyder ended by saying he wants to make a “smaller, faster, cheaper government.”

It was difficult to see much of a fundamental difference between the two candidates for governor, particularly on economic matters. There are some tactical differences, but both candidates are ardent supporters of the “free market system,” and both went out of their way to present themselves as business friendly to a crowd of mostly business professionals.

Make no mistake that the morning session with the two gubernatorial candidates was a vetting process to determine which of the candidates they will endorse in November’s election. The West Michigan Regional Policy Forum has already endorsed candidates for all other state offices in this part of the state and even though they did not list party affiliation it appears that all but one of the candidates are Republicans. The group also provided everyone in attendance with a voter guide and other election resources.

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