Mixed messages, fading outlook among local leaders in annual Michigan Public Policy Survey

Officials cite concerns about financial and public health support in the ongoing response to the COVID-19 pandemic

July 16, 2020
Written By:
Rebecca Cohen

Michigan Capital Building Image credit: The ToadMichigan local government officials’ attitudes about the direction of the state and the performances of the governor and the legislature have improved from last year, but remain more negative than positive.

The 2020 Michigan Public Policy Survey gathered that information during April and May, through its census survey of 1,856 general purpose local governments throughout the state.

The low approval numbers actually represent an increase in confidence over the 2019 survey; however, as the survey was being conducted, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic were hurting local governments—their unemployment numbers, tax revenues and stress on health resources. That was reflected in decreasing confidence over the weeks the survey proceeded.

The Center for Local, State, and Urban Policy at the University of Michigan Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy conducts the MPPS every spring. Some of the 2020 survey’s key findings:

  • Statewide, nearly half (46%) of Michigan’s local officials said the state has gotten off on the wrong track, while 39% said the state is generally going in the right direction, an improvement over assessments in 2019. However, the percentage saying “right direction” declined over the course of the survey field period, in conjunction with the spreading COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Local leaders’ views of the state’s direction are strongly associated with partisan identification—57% Republicans, 27% Democrats and 15% Independents. Thus, among local officials who self-identify as Republican, just a quarter (26%) said Michigan is headed in the right direction. Meanwhile, among Independents, 39% said the state is headed in the right direction, and among Democratic local officials, 72% said the state is headed in the right direction.
  • Although only 39% of local officials statewide rated Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s job performance as “good” or “excellent,” this was significantly higher than her 2019 ratings (23%), with most change coming from those who said “don’t know” last year, when she had been in office for just a few months. By contrast, 27% rated the Governor’s performance in 2020 as only fair and 31% rated her performance as poor. These ratings also worsened over the course of April and May.
  • Although just 31% of local officials statewide said the Michigan Legislature’s performance is either excellent or good in 2020, this is up from 21% last year and represents the highest ratings for the Legislature since the MPPS began tracking them in 2011.

    Tom Ivako

    Tom Ivako

“Our longer-term tracking shows real improvement this year in evaluations of state policymakers’ performance, compared with last year. But the mini-trend of worsening evaluations as the pandemic spread across Michigan is hard to miss. Many local governments felt they needed more help from the state, which itself is part of a longer-term trend we’ve tracked over the last 10 years,” said Tom Ivacko, interim director of CLOSUP.

Our longer-term tracking shows real improvement this year in evaluations of state policymakers’ performance, compared with last year

Tom Ivacko

MPPS project manager Debra Horner, said they expected positive and negative evaluations to be pretty closely associated with partisan views.

“But what was surprising was how they also relate to the COVID-19 pandemic here in Michigan,” she said. “It’s not so much which jurisdictions have been hardest hit, but whether local leaders see the state and federal governments working to provide them with the resources they need locally to combat it.”

Launched in the wake of the Great Recession in 2009 by CLOSUP, the MPPS is conducted in partnership with the Michigan Association of Counties, Michigan Municipal League, and Michigan Townships Association.