The Michigan Chamber of Commerce, with more than 6,000 members that collectively employ 1 million people, stands as one of the more influential advocacy organizations in Lansing. As Democratic Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer prepares to take office in January with a legislature remaining in control of the Republicans, Michigan Chamber CEO Rich Studley says it’s unfair to pre-judge her as a friend or foe of business. Although the new governor and her party historically have been on the other side of business issues from the Michigan Chamber, Studley believes “she has the potential to keep our state moving forward with a different view than the current administration.”
What’s at the top of the Michigan Chamber’s agenda for 2019?
Infrastructure is a very high priority. We did make progress during the Snyder administration and I think Gov. Snyder and Republican legislative leaders deserve credit for making progress. A $1.2 billion plan is in place. About half of the revenue in the current plan comes from user fees, which we think is very appropriate. The governor-elect has said that she would prefer to take further steps to fix the roads and build and rebuild bridges, and has indicated the preference for user fees. We agree with Gretchen Whitmer on that. The real key here will be: Does our next governor look for opportunities to work together on issues where we can find common ground? Education, energy, transportation, and telecommunications are all historically bipartisan issues where we can keep Michigan moving forward and making progress.
How do you view the November election results in Michigan?
We actually think that’s not a bad outcome at all. One of the exciting things about a new administration is that next year, especially, we will have a lot of new people at the state level, both in the state House and in the Senate, and in the executive branch, with fresh perspectives and new ideas. That can be a healthy thing. Just because you have people from different views and different parties doesn’t mean we can’t work together and do great things. The message we’re getting from our members, the message that we’ve been asked to share with new and returning leaders in state government, is the election is over and we need to switch from campaigning to governing; we need to look for opportunities to work together.
Do you see Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer as a friend or foe to business?
Most Michiganders, and certainly members of the Michigan Chamber, want every Michigan governor to be successful. If the governor is successful, that’s a good thing for our state. If the governor-elect chooses to look for areas of agreement and opportunities to work together with the business community, we’ll be there to help. If she focuses on transportation, on job creation, on economic growth, on infrastructure, there are lots of opportunities to work together. We want to be encouraging and supportive and welcome the opportunity to work with Gretchen Whitmer and her team.
How should she view the Michigan Chamber?
I would hope that she would view us as open-minded and willing to listen, because we are, and I hope that she would view us on many key economic issues as a potential ally. One thing I’ve learned over the years is that people of goodwill can look at a lot of these complicated and very important public policy issues and reach honest differences of opinion.
Gretchen Whitmer is smart and tough and very knowledgeable about state government. She’s a good communicator and I think on the occasions where we’re not in agreement, we will listen and try to understand and offer constructive alternatives. There may be some issues that she feels strongly about or we feel strongly about where there’s not a way to bridge that gap, and then we will agree to disagree, but will do that in a business-like and professional manner.
What’s out there that gives you pause or concern for 2019?
There’s a great concern in the business community about national and international events that are largely outside of the control of state government — questions about foreign policy and about trade policy. The very strong message that we’re receiving from our members is that prudent business people really don’t believe that anyone wins a trade war. One way for us to counter that is to redouble our efforts to make sure we’re doing everything we can to make sure Michigan is strong and competitive. When we look at our three leading industries, Michigan is still a manufacturing state. That means we’re an exporting state. That means what happens or doesn’t happen nationally and internationally on tariffs can be critically important.
Interview conducted and condensed by Mark Sanchez.