U-M expert: Challenges abound as leaders assemble for Mackinac Policy Conference

September 20, 2021
Contact: Jeff Karoub jkaroub@umich.edu

Many of Michigan’s business, political and academic movers and shakers are gathering this week for the annual Mackinac Policy Conference after the coronavirus pandemic forced the cancellation of last year’s event.

While the number of people ferrying or flying to Mackinac Island is certain to be far lower than usual, with attendance caps and some opting out for reasons related to COVID-19, the conference is still luring people eager to help shape or make policy at a time when myriad challenges vie for their attention.

Not surprisingly, ramifications of COVID-19 remain a critical issue for leaders to deal with. Tom Ivacko, executive director of the University of Michigan’s Center for Local, State, and Urban Policy, includes it on his list of five priority areas for state leaders.

COVID and the damage done

“Social divisions over masking and vaccines are hobbling Michigan’s efforts to address statewide public health challenges presented by the pandemic, from school-based outbreaks to surges that threaten hospital capacity and push doctors, nurses and health care providers to the breaking point. As Gov. Gretchen Whitmer shifted from an aggressive statewide approach in year one of the pandemic to a more cautious and locally driven approach in year two, Michigan has become a patchwork of policies and practices—and seemingly endless hostility.

“So far, the state has avoided the massive Delta variant-driven surges that have overwhelmed other states, but will that last? How will the state and local governments respond if the Delta wave does crash over the state in full force? How would citizens respond? Can we find some way to dial back the hostility that is breaking out at local school and government board meetings and other public gatherings?”

A still-precarious economy

“The pandemic has slammed not just public health, but also the economy. The labor market is stressed. U-M’s Detroit Metro Area Communities Study estimates Detroit unemployment at 25%. Thousands of businesses around the state have struggled for months to hire enough workers, many reducing their operations by necessity due to labor shortages.

“Supply chains are broken, hobbling manufacturing. Housing prices have skyrocketed in many areas, while landlords demand back rent, renters may not have the money and federal rent aid sits on the sideline. An eviction crisis looms—a hyper-crisis?—on top of Michigan’s chronic eviction crisis documented by U-M’s Poverty Solutions Initiative.

“Meanwhile, the state and local governments need to spend billions of dollars in federal pandemic aid—a good problem to have, but a challenge nonetheless. Our economy is a big question mark.”

Great Lakes, great risks

“Even before this summer’s massive storm-driven power outages, Michigan’s electrical grid has underperformed on reliability, as climate change-induced weather patterns have become more severe. Outages caused by extreme weather have skyrocketed nationally, with Michigan among the hardest hit.

“Meanwhile, the state’s drinking water is threatened by PFAS contamination, lead supply lines and aging septic and sewer systems. Many of these problems hit minority communities particularly hard, presenting another challenge of equity. More than 400 miles of Great Lakes shoreline centered on the Straits of Mackinac are threatened by Enbridge’s aging Line 5 underwater gas and oil pipeline. And the Great Lakes face many other threats including invasive species, climate change, microplastics and phosphorus run-off.”

Redistricting: Back to the (re)drawing board

“Michigan is in the national spotlight as it rolls out an innovative approach to political redistricting by a citizens’ commission instead of by the legislature. The new Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission is a grand experiment in good government, transparency and citizen engagement, and its impacts will last a decade or more with new districts in place from 2022 through 2032.

“The MICRC is wrestling with complex challenges to design fair districts that protect minority rights, reflect the state’s diversity and communities of interest, prevent unfair partisan advantage and consider local government boundaries—all while ensuring roughly equal population across districts. The commissioners are lay citizens taking on one of the most important and complex policy challenges any state faces, in a time of hyperpartisanship. Lawsuits will be filed as soon as the commission adopts maps. Time will tell how successful this new approach is, whether it needs to be modified and whether it will serve as a national model for other states to follow. Citizens should pay attention and weigh in.”

Endangered democracy

“Democracy in Michigan and the U.S. is in danger, with voting and elections under particular threat. Despite overwhelming evidence demonstrating our elections are well-run and reliable, their very legitimacy is being questioned and undermined with potentially disastrous consequences.

“New policies are being discussed in the state legislature that could make it harder for minorities to vote, another challenge for equity. Meanwhile, our governor was nearly kidnapped, which is an astounding thing to consider. Trust in government and other foundations of democracy like the free press are near historic low points. Despite these concerns, our own Michigan Public Policy Survey shows local leaders believe democracy is still functioning relatively well at the local level, but is also facing growing threats. We need a great recommitment to democracy, to the art of compromise, among all Michiganders. Before it is too late.”