To most everyone’s surprise, he also answered his party’s call to make Michigan a right to work state, even though he once thought the issue was too divisive. Boisterous protests outside the Lansing capital and a precipitous drop in his approval ratings proved his concerns were well-placed. Amid that backdrop – and just hours before vetoing a bill to expand the state’s concealed weapons law – Snyder sat down with MiBiz in his executive office to talk about his legislative accomplishments and his vision for the rest of his term.
Governor, in the first two years of your administration, you’ve been laser-focused on creating a great environment for businesses. And you mostly stayed above the fray on the divisive issues like right to work and the social issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. In the past few weeks, you’ve jumped into the fray on a few of those, and they were very divisive. How are you going to lead and keep people together going forward?
My main agenda hasn’t changed. It’s jobs and kids. In some ways, I have to respond to what the legislators are doing and what other people are doing. Again, as governor, you don’t decide the whole agenda. (Laughs.) Other people are contributing to what needs to be addressed in this state. I think I’ve been very consistent ever since I campaigned to taking office (in saying) that I’m a jobs and kids guy. That’s my track and I’m going to go right back to my track every chance I get because I think there’s more work to be done.
What’s at the top of your agenda for 2013 in terms of business and the Michigan economy?
Many of our readers share your concern.
That’s number one and it’s been one of my top priorities ever since I took office, but it’s going to get really highlighted particularly in the spring of this year. There’s really three ‘Cs’ to it. It’s about collaborating with the private sector because it’s about the demand side: where are jobs today and where are jobs in the future. The second C is about creating talent. That’s really partnering with the education sector to say, “What are we doing to make sure people are getting the right preparation?” I think there’s work that needs to be done there. The last C is connecting talent, which is taking demand and supply and putting them both together. That’s not been done well in our country for an extended period of time. And I believe the jurisdictions that lead in that are going to have a significant advantage in terms of economic development and job creation.
What’s your plan to connect the supply with demand?
I started this process with MiTalent.org, the website, because I think that made a tangible illustration of what I’m talking about. We still have too much unemployment. We’re around 9 percent. At the same time, if you go to MiTalent.org, it shows we have over 50,000 open jobs. It really illustrates this inability of our society to do a good matching between supply and demand of talent. There’s opportunity there. We could drop our unemployment rate by a couple of percentage points just by filling those jobs, and they’re good jobs.
Let’s talk about the energy sector, which could create many jobs in the future. You delivered a special message on energy, but a lot of the business leaders we talked to say they were left wanting for some specifics. They thought it was great to pay attention to energy, but what’s the plan and what can we expect in the next year?
We actually laid out timelines. … It’s important to get public dialogue and input and then define that. We’ve outlined a number of key ones. One I’m really excited about is the whole land strategy question. Michigan’s never really had a strategy for owning over 4 million acres of land. I think it’s pretty reasonable to work on coming up with strategy over five or six months. That’s something important. So I view it as this isn’t me coming out to say here’s the answer, but to say, let’s take 2013 to have an open dialogue. Over the course of (the) year, there’s going to be multiple forums and events to get answers to what we think new goals for efficiency and renewables should be. That’s a good timetable.
You’re expected to sign the bill to end the personal property tax that will require the public to approve a new municipal authority for it to take effect. How confident are you that this process of going to the voters is going to work given the resounding defeat in the last election of all the ballot initiatives?
I think this is a case where it’s about jobs. Really the message that should come out in terms of asking the voters to support this: All it does is shift the earmarking of dollar resources. It doesn’t cost additional dollars to citizens. What it does is really get rid of a really obnoxious tax.
Given the experience of the past year, maybe the reasonable argument didn’t always win out?
For municipalities, this is in their best interest. So I think you could find a good alignment of local and state resources all saying, ‘Hey, here’s a situation that’s just going to make us more competitive, that’s going to lead to more jobs, that doesn’t cost individual citizens more money.’ Let’s get it done.
Do you fear there could be any retribution from the right to work vote? Could that possibly derail any efforts with the personal property tax?
I hope not. You’re going to find some in the shorter term. (The personal property tax) is still a couple of years out. But we’ve already seen some positive steps even while right to work was going on, in the sense that Detroit lighting got approved and the arena got approved with some bipartisan support. One of the questions is: If you’re a public servant, particularly if you’re an elected official, to say you’re not going to work with someone because they have a difference of opinion is not a good answer. I don’t think that’s appropriate because we should all be focused not on our relationships, but on the customers, who are the citizens.
Transparency has been one of your priorities. How would you assess where you are today?
Transparency for the dashboards and scorecards is good. We’ve improved a lot because we didn’t have much of a system there at all. I would say it’s continuous improvement on the reporting and metrics, but it’s a huge improvement over what we didn’t have.
I think there’s more we could do — that you could see me potentially talking about some of this in the State of the State — with ethics and campaign transparency, some improvements in that process. I talked about it when I first took office, but it didn’t get a lot of traction. I think it could be an appropriate topic to bring back.
Let’s talk about Obamacare for a minute. You wanted a state-based exchange. That was defeated in committee. The state now has until February to decide whether it’s going to let the federal government run the exchange in Michigan or whether the exchange will be a partnership between the feds and the state. It appears the partnership route is the direction we’re heading — is that what’s going to happen?
Most likely. That’s the path we’re on. In terms of responding, it’s more that we have time and are waiting to see if there’s other answers that could change the answer. But the default setting at this point is a state-based partnership exchange (with the federal government).
What other answers might change the answer?
I don’t really see a lot on the horizon changing that potentially. Again, as long as we view we can have a good partnership with the federal government to allow us to have value add in the state part of that (exchange) — which is really more on the eligibility piece and some of the customer service aspects of the plan pieces and such — that’s a good thing.
We find more and more companies are embracing corporate wellness initiatives. Is there anything in your plans to help foster that?
Yeah. What we’re going to do is try to celebrate their successes more. I’m a huge wellness guy. That’s why I came out with the 4 x 4 plan. The way I view it is, it’s not the government solving everyone’s issue. It really starts with personal responsibility. But to the degree companies are doing it and being proactive, I’d view one of the best things we can do is celebrate their success and … market that. Because if we can market that, that may encourage other companies or individuals to say they can do similar things. We’re playing more a coordinator and clearinghouse role, not a command and control role. We should be more proactive. I think you’ll see that launching at the first of the year.
Your administration has been very progressive on mental health issues. Given what’s happened in the last week or so, what do you see necessary to continue to move that ball?
Mental health is an important issue that’s been underemphasized. (The Sandy Hook shooting) was a terrible tragedy. Hopefully, it will get a lot more people aware of how important this is. It might facilitate us being able to do more in terms of being proactive on mental health.
The state passed autism legislation earlier this year — are there any other ideas along those lines?
I don’t know if it’s so much getting into the coverage mandate kind of question as it is making sure that first we’re figuring out how to get the communities more engaged and finding out … best practices with mental health services (that can be) spread throughout the state.
What should our readers look for from you in the next year?
A lot of it is watching the full implementation of what we’ve done. I’m really proud of our track record in making us much more competitive. Our goal isn’t to create the jobs; it’s to create the environment for the jobs to flourish. Unfortunately, the way all the surveys and things work nationally, you tend to have a year or two time lag. But I think if you go through and look at a lot of the criteria people use, arguably, we could be a top 10 state in terms of being among the most competitive, if you look at tax system, regulatory scheme, and you look at the basics within the tax system, income tax, personal property tax, unemployment, workers comp reform, all the regulatory reform areas that we’re showing big improvements.
That sounds like a good sales pitch.
What concerns me at some point is, the surveys will be a couple of years behind, but perceptions can lag. It can take five years or more for people to catch up. How do we actually say we’re this modern, progressive, moving forward business environment? Which we are. It’s exciting.
We always ask CEOs this last question: What keeps you up at night?
Generally, I do fine. (Laughter.) The way I view it is: This isn’t about me. This isn’t about credit or blame or fighting. I was in a position in life to come back. I love this state and I want to help people. So every day, I just get up saying, ‘How can I use relentless positive action to make a positive impact on 10 million people?’
Interview conducted and condensed by Brian Edwards and Joe Boomgaard