LANSING — Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is expected to use next week’s Mackinac Policy Conference to announce a new commission largely focused on growing the state’s population, fixing roads and improving public education, according to three officials familiar with the plan.
Whitmer’s office is not disclosing details until next week but confirmed that reversing decades of population stagnation is top-of-the-mind for the second-term Democrat as she approaches the annual conference of lawmakers, business leaders and policymakers hosted by the Detroit Regional Chamber.
“Population growth will be our focus — it has been our focus throughout the administration,” spokesperson Bobby Leddy told Bridge Michigan.
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“We’re going to put in first-ever mechanisms to make sure that there are people in commissions that are specifically focused on population growth.”
The Whitmer administration hopes to make the commission a bipartisan endeavor and is negotiating with Republican leaders over possible appointment authority to try and secure their support, according to sources who say those talks are ongoing and not yet resolved.
But the aim, those sources say, is to establish the commission as soon as this summer, with policy recommendations coming by year’s end and possible legislative changes following in 2024.
Michigan’s population crisis is a top concern for business leaders and policymakers, exacerbating a national worker shortage and reducing the state’s sway in Washington D.C. through the loss of congressional seats.
As Bridge recently reported, the Michigan Economic Development Corp. also plans to roll out a marketing campaign in the coming months in an effort to retain and attract young professionals.
Michigan remains the 10th biggest state in the nation, but it has ranked 49th out of 50 for population growth since 1990.
In a new report released this month, the nonpartisan Citizens Research Council warned Michigan has “fallen behind other states in population growth, jobs, earnings, health, educational achievement, and the quality of public services at the state and local levels.”
The outlook may not be much better for the aging state: Only 55 percent of voters between the age of 18 and 29 believe they will still be living in Michigan a decade from now, according to a new statewide public opinion survey by Glengariff, Inc.
Even so, 79 percent of younger adults said they’re optimistic about their own future in Michigan, the poll found.
“The message out of this poll is: everyone needs to get really, really serious about what matters to these residents under 30 to keep them here,” said Richard Czuba, whose firm conducted the poll. “And if you want to grow, you better keep them here, and you better focus on their issues.”
Business leaders are “absolutely” concerned about the state’s population stagnation, said Sandy K. Baruah, president of the Detroit Regional Chamber, which commissioned the poll.
“Our highest-potential, most-valuable graduates — in other words, those in STEM fields or with advanced degrees — they are the ones who are leaving the state in droves,” Baruah said.
Whitmer and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan are both expected to address population challenges next week on Mackinac Island, Baruah said.
“I’m hoping the conference will be the platform to start a more unified conversation.”
Whitmer’s new commission is likely to explore policy solutions to multiple challenges facing the state, but along with population growth, members are expected to focus on improving Michigan roads and public schools.
Whitmer, who first won office in 2018 on a pledge to “fix the damn roads,” told Bridge in December that she won’t ask the Michigan Legislature to increase gas taxes after lawmakers rejected her first proposal to do so in 2019.
Instead, Whitmer said she wants to begin a larger discussion about future funding models given the accelerating shift towards electric vehicles, whose owners do not pay gas taxes traditionally used to fund road repairs.
Possible options include a vehicle miles traveled tax or charging tolls on some roads, an idea the governor has said she is open to.
On the education front, Whitmer has touted record funding for K-12 public schools in recent state budgets she negotiated with the Legislature, but Michigan students struggle on standardized tests.
While scores across the country fell following COVID-19 school closures, Michigan 4th graders saw bigger declines in reading scores than their peers in 2022 on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
Improving public education should be part of any discussions about growing the state’s population, said Bob McCann, executive director of the K-12 Alliance of Michigan, who said he was not familiar with Whitmer’s planned commission.
“There’s no question that workers want to move and relocate to places where they think they can raise a family, and part of that is having a good school system,” he said. “If you want to do what’s necessary to really be a talent recruiter, you have to show them that we are investing in our schools.”