Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are largely in agreement that the Pure Michigan travel campaign does a lot of good for the state and deserves proper funding.
Yet the question remains: Why haven’t political leaders in Lansing been able to find the money to get Pure Michigan ads back on the air in time to promote the state as a destination for the busy summer travel season?
At a legislative panel with two colleagues at the recent Pure Michigan Governor’s Conference on Tourism in Grand Rapids, state Sen. Ken Horn offered a simple answer: Politics over the state budget and not wanting to give the other side any edge have essentially gotten in the way.
In this case, deep differences with Republicans who control the state Legislature led Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer last October to line-item veto 147 items totaling nearly $1 billion from the budget approved by lawmakers for the state’s present 2020 fiscal year. That included $37.5 million for Pure Michigan.
Horn, R-Frankenmuth, did offer the tourism promoters and industry executives hope that Pure Michigan funding may soon get restored for this year, although political maneuvering has been hindering that prospect, despite broad support.
In the far broader and contentious budget debate in Lansing, Pure Michigan funding became “collateral damage,” Horn said.
As legislators and the governor consider possibly restoring some of the allocations cut last fall, and with disagreements about budget priorities lingering, if one issue gets pushed too hard by one lawmaker, that gives somebody else political leverage to demand something in return, he said.
“If she feels like she’s pushing too hard, we have leverage on her,” Horn said. “If we feel that Pure Michigan becomes so important to us that we’re going to die on this hill, the governor’s going to have some expectations of us in terms of what we’re going to do with some other funds.
“It’s still a standoff and I don’t know how it’s going to be resolved.”
His comments offered people in attendance a simple dose of reality on how it works when legislators have to annually divvy up a limited pool of public money amid differing ideologies, priorities and intensely competing interests.
Still, given the wide support in Lansing for Pure Michigan, Horn believes $20 million to $30 million for Pure Michigan in the present fiscal year could be restored soon, “then we’ll fight for more money.”
That next fight comes as lawmakers begin to weigh the governor’s $61.9 billion budget proposal for the 2021 fiscal year that would allocate $15 million for the campaign, less than half of what Travel Michigan has received annually in recent years to promote the state as a travel destination.
The amount proposed by Whitmer provides “the ability for the tourism industry to continue contributing additional funding to this statewide effort that encourages travelers to experience Michigan’s four-season natural beauty, its unique urban destinations and its world-class cultural attractions,” according to budget documents.
The scenario provides a reminder of how tourism industry advocates have had to battle since Pure Michigan began in 2006 to secure annual funding for the campaign, which has been silent since October following the governor’s line-item veto.
In a video message played at the tourism conference, Gov. Whitmer said she supports Pure Michigan and that the campaign “makes me proud to be a Michigander.” However, the state budget faces “tremendous and increasing structural challenges” that required “hard choices when it came to prioritizing available general fund dollars.”
“We must balance key investments like Pure Michigan with the pressing need to improve education and the skills of Michigan citizens, to protect our families and public health, and to clean up Michigan’s drinking water,” Whitmer said. “These are issues we have to focus on right now to put our state in the best position to be successful long term.”
Whitmer described her $15 million proposal as still a “significant” investment in Pure Michigan.
Travel Michigan Vice President Dave Lorenz told MiBiz that the amount proposed for Pure Michigan for the 2021 fiscal year that starts Oct. 1 does not signify any waning support in Lansing.
“This has never been about a disagreement about the efficacy of the program,” Lorenz said.
As far as the $15 million proposed for the 2021 fiscal year, Lorenz called it “an opening number” and “a start.” He expects to see the amount changed during the budget review process.
“This is the administration’s opening position and they will go back and forth between the legislature and they will come up with, I think, adequate funding in ’21 because it benefits everybody,” Lorenz said.
As spring approaches and prospective travelers plan this year’s vacations, Travel Michigan, an arm of the Michigan Economic Development Corp., has already missed out on receiving the best rates and prime ad placements for a summer campaign, Lorenz said. Travel Michigan has “been making changes to our plan, adjusting to the new realities as they go,” he said.
“We will be prepared if we get funding tomorrow or in a month to maximize that,” Lorenz said. “We’re going to change the way we’re going to market. We’ll still use a mix of media and we’re going to do a very innovative buying process and placement process.”
He declined to offer specifics on what’s in store, although Travel Michigan would use more digital and social media and perhaps “media stunts to get attention.”
The lack of Pure Michigan ads since October has led to a 20-percent decline in traffic to Travel Michigan’s website from prospective travelers seeking information on travel destinations, Lorenz said.