2016 wasn’t an easy year for Gov. Rick Snyder. But even with Democrats’ near-daily calls for his resignation because of the ongoing Flint water crisis, the businessman-turned-politician still maintains his trademark “relentlessly positive” attitude. With about two years left in his second term, Snyder told MiBiz he remains focused on skilled trades training and tackling issues related to the state’s beleaguered infrastructure.
The infrastructure commission you formed early this year recently issued its findings. What did you take away from that report?
With respect to the infrastructure commission, what I’d say is that I appreciate their work. I think they did great work looking at the next 30 to 50 years in Michigan. There are so many steps that we can start in the next year or two. We’re not going to have the whole plan completed and we won’t have all the revenue coming in to pay for all the elements, but we can create a path to follow that roadmap. That’s exciting.
Given the findings of the infrastructure commission, what will you implement next year?
One is creating the Michigan Infrastructure Council, which is really a coordinating organization. If you look at it, there’s probably 3,000 different jurisdictions that are involved in infrastructure in some fashion, plus many private companies. How do we coordinate all that? And that gets to the second point, which is how do we do a pilot on asset management.
What do you mean by that?
Think about the street in front of your house or office and it gets torn up, either for road work or for utility work. The point is they can coordinate that. We can do it once rather than tearing it up multiple times. Once for the road people, once for the water and sewer and once for the fiber-optic cable.
President-elect Trump has called for significant infrastructure investment as part of his new administration. What do you think that looks like in practice?
I’d like to share our report with them because I think it gives them a good roadmap on what are the issues. The report is Michigan-centric, but these issues are prevalent throughout the U.S. So I think we couldn’t have had the commission come out with the report in a more timely-fashion. And then to understand the magnitude of the problem and how do we look at the federal government playing an important partnership role in setting the course, but also the financing of all these things.
Shifting gears to economic development, a number of bills aimed at transformational projects didn’t ultimately get taken up in the lame duck session. What’s your analysis of how the state is doing when it comes to offering competitive incentives?
Generally, I’m not a supporter of tax incentives as a general driver. But two things: There’s a pragmatic piece to this. You need some tools in your toolbox to be competitive with other places. The other is that there can be limited-purpose items that can make sense to do for a limited amount of time for a limited project number and limited dollar amount. There are two bills in particular that I do support.
Which are those?
One would be a proposal largely talking to business leaders about creating large-scale manufacturing opportunities, things involving more than 500 jobs, which don’t happen on a regular basis but you want tools to compete at that level. And those jobs would have above-average wages. There are some opportunities out there, and I’d like to have that in our toolkit.
What’s the other bill you support?
The other is the transformational brownfield effort (a bill supported by Detroit billionaire Dan Gilbert). The discussions we’ve had with (Gilbert’s team) would significantly modify their initial proposal to put limits on it and make it effective and say there are some truly transformational, ‘going vertical’ projects that would help Detroit and other communities more in a national, market-rate environment. And we’ve worked with them to have a version of the bill that would be more limited, but also effective.
Also on the economic development front, President-elect Trump made headlines with his deal with Carrier Corp. to keep some jobs in Indiana. What’s your view of a president who directly engages in state-based economic development policies?
I think we’ll have to wait and see. It’s good he’s focused on more and better jobs in our country. That’s a positive. Hopefully, he can appreciate the role of the federal government and the role of the states. We each have a role to play, and in Michigan, we’ve been successful in playing that role. I would hope the federal government would look to us as a model for how they should do things nationally.
You and President-elect Trump both entered politics with a business background and no previous government service. Given your experience over the last nearly six years, what advice would you offer Trump?
I’d say that there are very high-quality people working in the public sector, so don’t bring prejudices from the private sector. Learn that you’ve got great experienced people and be a good leader for them. … You can bring people together and create an environment for success. In Michigan, my role is not to create jobs directly. At the state level, our role is to create an environment and let free enterprise work.