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Whitmer Forms Commission to Study Michigan’s Population Loss

The 28-member council will develop recommendations on how to retain college graduates, promote Michigan’s natural resources and build upon its manufacturing legacy. The state experienced its first population loss in over a decade in the last Census.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Thursday, June 1, formed a commission to study and address Michigan's population loss problem during a yearly policy conference that centered on the state's challenges attracting and retaining talent — an effort that some Republicans characterized as a "political cover" to raise taxes.

Whitmer wants the 28-member Growing Michigan Together Council to develop policy recommendations to retain recent college graduates, promote Michigan's natural resources and build on the state's manufacturing legacy.

The announcement of the group comes as studies released before and during this week's Mackinac Policy Conference paint an increasingly concerning picture of Michigan's ability to retain population, especially among recent graduates with skills needed to shift the state's automotive industry toward an electronic and autonomous vehicle focus.

The panel will be chaired by former Ambassador John Rakolta, a Republican and chairman of Walbridge, and New Detroit CEO Shirley Stancato, a Democrat and member of the Wayne State University Board of Governors.

Whitmer said she won't be part of the commission because it's meant to continue across administrations without partisan involvement.

"This work has got to continue. It shouldn't be individual-driven," Whitmer said during an annual address to business, political and civic leaders at the policy conference. "It shouldn't be party driven. It really needs to be a focus on Michigan, on growing Michigan."

Michigan lost residents in the most recent U.S. Census estimate, the first decline in more than a decade. Oakland, Wayne and Macomb counties were among 36 counties that experienced population loss, Census estimates show.

Whitmer signed an executive directive Thursday on the Grand Hotel porch, directing the group to issue a report by Dec. 1 with a target population goal for 2050 and ways in which that goal can be achieved, as well as infrastructure and education goals.

The Democratic governor also wants the council to come up with a price tag for taxpayers to meet those goals.

"I have assumptions, but I want data," Whitmer said. "I want expertise that is informing the work. I don't profess to have all of the answers. That's why I'm soliciting real thought leaders."

Rakolta, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Arab Emirates under former President Donald Trump, has been lobbying the governor and other political leaders for at least a year to establish a commission focused on the future of the state's economy. Rakolta served on a similar commission in 2015-16 that was credited with convincing the Legislature to save the Detroit school system from a financial disaster.

"Our state has been stagnant for over 30 years in terms of population," Rakolta said Thursday. "... Our demography is stagnant. We are 50th out of 51 states and Washington D.C. in terms of population growth, and that has to change."

Rakolta said the group will focus on underperforming K-12 education, collapsing infrastructure and a lack of "cultural cohesion that it takes to compete on a global basis today."

As part of the announcement for the newly-formed council, Whitmer also announced that Detroiter Hilary Doe, who runs the campaign fundraising software firm NationBuilder, will take on the newly created role of "chief growth officer" within the Michigan Economic Development Corp. and work with the council.

Stancato said the group will "convene the brightest minds" and incorporate input from businesses, nonprofits and other stakeholders.

"We have a collective responsibility to reverse the tide of Michiganders leaving our state and attract people from outside our borders and perhaps have the opportunity for some folks to come back," Stancato said.

Whitmer said addressing the state's population loss is not "one-dimensional," but must incorporate student outcomes, promotion of natural resources and placemaking in a way that is "overarching" and "nonpolitical." She also said the council's work likely won't be "done in three and a half years" when her second term ends and she leaves the governor's office.

Whitmer's plans for a population growth council were generally panned by Republican leaders, who argued the Democratic-led Legislature's push earlier this year to repeal right-to-work and reinstate prevailing wage ran counter to efforts to attract jobs and talent to the state.

"If anything, this council is an indictment of the governor's failed leadership that continues to hurt Michiganders and drive people and businesses away from our great state," said Senate Minority Leader Aric Nesbitt, R- Porter Township.

House Republican Leader Matt Hall, R- Richland Township, said the commission would give Whitmer "political cover" to raise taxes for infrastructure and amounted to an effort to "kick the can down the road" on resolving population stagnation.

"If Gov. Whitmer wants a real plan, she should do what governors are supposed to do and work with the people's elected representatives in the Legislature," Hall said in a statement.

A report released Wednesday by urban researcher Richard Florida found the state is failing to retain key talent pools after graduation: Computer scientists, electrical engineers and chemical engineers needed to advance Michigan's EV and autonomous industry.

Just 28 percent of the University of Michigan's graduates in mathematics and statistics are working in the state five years after graduation, 36 percent of those in engineering and 25 percent in computer-related majors — about 36 percent of UM graduates with computer-related majors are working on the West Coast, the study said.

Overall, just one-third of UM's undergraduates are working in the state five years after graduation.

Florida argued in his report that in order to attract more talent, Michigan must seek to attract international workers and retain the students educated at its universities. It also must seek to convert college towns like Ann Arbor and East Lansing from simply places of learning to "full contributors to the state's technological and economic transformation."

"In other words, they must become tech hubs and talent magnets in their own right," the report said.

State Demographer Jaclyn Butler told lawmakers earlier this month that Michigan's population grew by 2 percent between 2010 and 2020, the 46th slowest of 47 states that experienced population growth during that decade. Michigan was among 19 states that experienced a population decline between 2020 and 2022.

Citizens Research Council of Michigan and Altarum authored a series of reports last month that found the state has fallen behind the rest of the nation by several measures — from jobs to earning, population growth to educational achievement, and from health to public services.

It's a problem that's been brewing as the state's population remained stagnant for decades, but one that is finally at a pivot point as trajectories show a shrinking residency and talent pool, said Eric Lupher, president of the Citizens Research Council of Michigan.

Similar concerns were voiced in the administrations of Govs. Jennifer Granholm and Rick Snyder but, this time around, business, philanthropy and government are recognizing the issue, Lupher said.

"The hardest thing to do is convince somebody that there's a problem in the future," Lupher said. But hours-long waits in the ER because of a shortage of nurses or shorter delays at restaurants due to dwindling waitstaff are doing the convincing, he said.

"They're starting to see examples of what the future might hold," Lupher said.

Altarum's Ani Turner said the council has the opportunity to study other cities that have turned around their population trajectories, such as Nashville or Columbus.

"There are places around the country that aren't some of the usual suspects that have been booming in recent years," Turner said. "I would think one of the next steps is to bring in the people who understand what happened in those places."

Housed within the Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity, the Growing Michigan Together Council will have seven non-voting members and 21 voting members appointed by the governor and will convene no later than July 1 and prepare a report by Dec. 1.

Besides Rakolta and Stancato, no other appointees have been announced by the governor's office.

Voting members will include Rakolta and Stancato, one Republican and one Democrat from each chamber for a total of four lawmakers, and the director of the labor department.

The remaining 14 voting members include one person under the age of 25, and members from labor, the private sector, workforce development and talent, the nonprofit sector and infrastructure.

Non-voting members will include several state department heads and individuals with backgrounds in economics and demography.

Members will create four workgroups focused on education, population growth, jobs and talent and infrastructure.

Whitmer's Thursday speech served as a defense of the state's business attraction efforts, with some thinly veiled shots at Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin.

"While some states wage war with Mickey Mouse or demean battery projects, we in Michigan will go anywhere and compete with anyone to bring jobs and business home," Whitmer said.

The governor defended the hundreds of millions of dollars given to battery plant projects in Marshall and Big Rapids, which have been the subject of some protests and recall efforts due to the projects' locations in rural areas, their links to China and the secrecy surrounding the project negotiations. She blamed the opposition on coordinated efforts to "rile" people up.

"There is an orchestrated effort to whip people up and disseminate information that is just not accurate," Whitmer said.

(c)2023 The Detroit News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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