The state of Michigan

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published March 14, 2016

BIRMINGHAM — Surprisingly, there wasn’t much talk of the ongoing campaign for U.S. president March 7 during the Birmingham Bloomfield Chamber of Commerce’s annual Government Forecast.

Instead, the rhetoric from the keynote speakers, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and Michigan Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, was more hopeful, and certainly more focused on what they think lies ahead for Michigan specifically.

The two took to the podium at the Townsend Hotel Monday morning in front of a crowd filled with Birmingham-Bloomfield business and local government leaders. The event, according to chamber President Joe Bauman, is one in a series of forecasts on various topics meant to put local business leaders in front of the decision makers who can impact their success.

“We want our elected officials to see the business community as an important voice that needs to be listened to. That’s the primary reason why we do this,” Bauman explained. “We want them to pay attention to the business community, but we also want to provide (that community) with direct access to the people making these decisions and these laws.”

Peters certainly seemed to have business in mind during his comments that morning. He spent several minutes during his remarks commenting on the future of the auto industry, namely autonomous vehicles. These self-driving or driverless vehicles will likely take over American roadways within five to 10 years, and Peters wants Michigan to be the heart of that revolution.

“It’s safer than we all imagine,” Peters said of the vehicles, which he said he has tried for himself. “That’s what (is ahead). What our job is in Lansing is to make sure Michigan continues to be at the center of that.”

That could be a tough sell, he explained, despite the fact that the Motor City has been known as the automotive capital of the world for some time. The software for autonomous vehicles is largely coming out of the techcentric Silicon Valley, and we’ll need to keep — and bring — automotive talent here so the industry will follow, he said.

Peters said he’d like to see more of the defense industry moved to Michigan as well, suggesting that Battle Creek could be turned into a missile defense center so the state can benefit from the ample resources available to regions with military facilities.

Calley tried to look on the positive side too, touting his work to improve policy for people with cognitive challenges like mental illness, developmental disabilities and substance abuse. He even took the opportunity to endorse Ohio Gov. John Kasich as the next president, citing his experience successfully balancing budgets.

But one thing neither official could get away from was the water crisis in Flint, where Calley said he spends a few days each week. It’s an issue the state is just starting to get a grasp on, and one that has a wider reach than many would like to think.

“Lead is a risk no matter what. There is no safe level of it,” Calley said in response to an audience question about the safety of water from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department system. “And so what I would say is to anybody who has responsibility across this state for infrastructure, and particularly drinking water infrastructure, is that there should be in place a long-term plan in order to eradicate this risk from your community.”

He cited Lansing as an example, which he said has systematically been implementing a plan to replace some lead lines from the city’s service each year until lead pipes are removed completely.

Peters touched on Flint too, saying that more needs to be done, particularly on the federal government end as far as providing resources to help residents impacted by the toxic water. He also mentioned that water infrastructure is an issue that needs to be addressed across the country.

But some in the audience indicated in their questions to the officials that while they’re concerned for Flint, they’re worried too much focus and that too many resources could be diverted to the crisis instead of other problems around the state.

“Now, had something like this come up back in 2011, it would’ve been nearly impossible for us to deal with,” Calley said, noting that an estimated $235 million from the state is on its way to aid Flint. “But the strength of the Michigan economy and the strength of the Michigan budget is such that we are able to do this without having to make any significant adjustments to other areas. In other words, there’s growth in the economy, and we’re also taking money that we would’ve normally put toward the budget stabilization fund and we’re putting it toward an infrastructure improvement fund.”

He also mentioned the roads package that was approved by the Legislature last year, which he stressed has dedicated revenue sources to build up that fund, so whatever spending priorities happen over the course of the next five years, investment in roads will continue to grow.

The debt of Detroit Public Schools, the U.S. Supreme Court vacancy and a variety of topics were also discussed during the forecast, which is currently being replayed on Bloomfield Community Television.

The audience seemed impressed with both speakers, though, and took away the more positive points.

“I liked how (both) said we need to focus on attracting talent,” said Birmingham City Commissioner Mark Nickita. “That’s a big deal, and it was good to hear that the government is looking at that as an important aspect of building our economy.”

Nickita honed in on Calley’s comment that a major hindrance of job seekers today is transportation, in light of the steps the Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan hopes to take this year with a bond proposal on the November ballot.

Birmingham City Manager Joe Valentine agreed, and said the predictions for more autonomous vehicles could make for an interesting city planning challenge.

Franklin Village Administrator Jim Creech said he found the event “very informative.”

“I’m looking forward to seeing what kind of stuff is going to be coming out of these government offices,” he said.

The next installment in the chamber’s series will be April 5 with the Real Estate Forecast. For more information, visit www.bbcc.com.