VerHuelen touts Grand Rapids area ‘Leads the state in economic vitality’

State Representative Rob VerHuelen pictured with Rockford Mayor Steve Jazwiec after VerHuelen’s keynote address at the Rockford Chamber of Commerce Annual Dinner Friday, January 20.


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State Representative Rob VanHuelen, Rockford’s advocate in Lansing was the keynote speaker Friday, January 20 at the Rockford Chamber of Commerce’s annual dinner and business meeting. Like many other prestigious speaker before, he offered his insite into the future of Michigan’s business community, specifically the West Michigan and Grand Rapids area, as well as some thoughts on the state of the United States.

He started out by stating that it is a privilege and an honor to both represent Rockford in Lansing and being asked to speak to the members of the Rockford area business and political communities. Howe ver, he prefaced his talk with the warning, “I have yet to be criticized for being too brief.”

“Given what is happening in Washington these days with the inauguration and the filling of various positions in the new administration, I feel compelled to share one of my favorite Lincoln stories. I am not a good joke teller, but I think this story reflects the wit of President Lincoln.”

“After President Lincoln was elected, he was flooded with those seeking an appointment to a job in the government. One of his most persistent callers came to him one day with the news that the Chief of Customs had just died. Could he possibly take the place, the caller asked Lincoln scratched his head and responded, “It’s fine with me if the undertaker doesn’t mind.”

“I was asked to speak briefly about what I expect out of Lansing the next two years, particularly as it relates to business and our economy. Let me first recognize some facts that reflect well on where we are.”

“First, the Grand Rapids region leads the state in economic vitality. It’s one year GDP, gross domestic product growth over the past year was 5.3 percent, ranking it 32nd out of 381 metro regions in the country. The three year GDP growth was 9.8 percent. By way of comparison, the second region is Ann Arbor with a oneyear growth of 1.8 percent and a three year growth of 3.6. Our region did better than twice as well in growth than the Ann Arbor region.

“Our region had a 21.3 percent increase in jobs compared to 4.6 percent in Ann Arbor. There was a ninty thousand jobs increase between 2012 and 2015 in Kent, Ottawa, Barry and Montcalm counties.

“Our three year increase in annual wage income was $45,435, 3.6 percent compared to a 1.4 percent increase in Ann Arbor ($54,985).

“In the Saginaw Bay and Bay City regions the economies are shrinking and wagers are down or stagnant.

“This indicates that we are not where we need to be. Only three of the fourteen metropolitan regions of Michigan have risen above the prerecession figures for the economic output and all three are on the west side of Michigan. They include Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo and Muskegon.

“The experts identify our diversified manufacturing base and the higher worker productivity and lower wages as significant factors in our growth in West Michigan. Also cited is the expansion of higher education and healthcare in Grand Rapids.

“I will shamelessly identify Governor Snyder and the legislature some credit for contributing to the recovery of Michigan. However since Governor Snyder took office, Michigan has an additional 460,000 new private sector jobs, the sixth in the United States.

“The State’s unemployment rate fell below the national average to 4.8 percent in March 2015, the fourth largest increase in the nation in 2015. So, in my view we have made significant progress over the past few years but there is much to do.”

“Governor Snyder recently met with the House Republicans. He identified several of his priorities over the next two years. He identified the creation of more and better jobs and preparing our kids for successes as two top priorities that I think we can all share. With respect to education, there is a strong desire to include career tech and skilled trade programs.

“In his State of the State address Tuesday night, the Governor emphasized the strength of the Michigan recovery and highlighted many significant achievements. He stressed the need to continue to retain our population and attract more people to Michigan with the goal of growing Michigan to over ten million residents by 2020.

While we never know what issues will arise, witness Flint, it is clear that there is great interest in several big items. We completed an overhaul of our energy policy last month so that is now off the list. However, there remain a number of priority items that I am certain we will take up.”

“First, at the end of the session, no action was taken on public pension and health care. One of the major concerns is that local units of government are creating retirement benefits they will not be able to meet. These include defined benefit retirement and retiree health care. I am convinced these will be addressed in the next session. It is difficult to predict where this will end up, but there is no question that this will be a legislative priority. I am hopeful that we will take a balanced approach and not micromanage our local units. On the other hand, Michigan taxpayers can be exposed if local units are unable to meet their obligations, so I believe we need to do some work in this area.

“There will also be an effort to reform our no fault insurance system. This has been on the list for years and I am certain it will come up again.

“I would like to see us address infrastructure in Michigan. Flint is Exhibit A as to what can happen with sewer and water systems that fail. The Governor mentioned infrastructure needs in his State of the State address, and I am pleased he did so. In Michigan, nearly half a million households do not have advanced broadband. Many of the 1,390 community water systems were built 50 to 100 years ago. Since 2008, an average of 5.7 billion gallons of untreated sewage flows into Michigan waterways annually. We still have much work to do with our road and bridges as well as our airports, and at the Soo. This is, in my mind, one of the big issues that need to be addressed over the next few years. I read yesterday that Moody’s has identified our lack of capital investment as a weakness when considering our bond rating. The Michigan legislature approved the expansion of the locks but never appropriated the funds. Now it is a matter of national security.

“There will also be a discussion on the approaching use of economic development tools and the role of the MEDC (Michigan Economic Development Corporation). The Governor supports a limited but necessary array of tools while some in the legislature are apposed to the use of these tools, identifying them as crony capitalism and unnecessary to a vibrant and expanding economy.

“While no one knows what will happen, we could be entering a transformational time in America with enormous implications for Michigan. Let me just cite two examples.

“President Trump has identified the repeal and replacement of Obamacare as a major priority. Michigan has 600,000 residents participating in the Medicaid expansion, resulting from the Affordable Care Act. The Healthy Michigan act program has 640,000 Michigan participants. If Congress repeals Obamacare, those people will lose coverage. They say it won’t be falling off a cliff, but I don’t think any one of them has a clue. In addition, he has mentioned block granting to the states the traditional Medicaid program. This could be huge if Michigan can establish a program designed to meet our needs.

“Similarly, President Trump has talked about a major investment in infrastructure. Roads, bridges, ports, airports and the like. How will this impact Michigan What will our options be

“President Trump campaigned on giving states more flexibility and the use of block grants. We are all wary of campaign promises, but I think it is safe to say there will be changes in federal state relationships, which could impact us in a number of areas.

“It is way too early to make safe predictions beyond stay tuned. We are in for an interesting ride. It is a time of change in America which will have undetermined consequences for Michigan. Rockford has demonstrated its vibrancy and provided quality of life for its residents. I have no doubt that whatever happens in Washington or in Lansing, Rockford will continue to lead and set an example. I am honored to represent you in Lansing and hope and urge that you continue to reach out to me with your suggestions, thoughts and concerns.”