Republican Gov. Rick Snyder on Wednesday laid out a road map for addressing Michigan's ills that fit neatly with his past as a venture capitalist, accountant and computer company executive.
The initiatives laid out in his first State of the State address largely reflected an agenda long favored by business groups. He called for building a new, separate bridge across the Detroit River between Detroit and Windsor, Canada, opening the state's venture capital fund to more types of businesses such as agricultural companies, spending $25 million annually on the Pure Michigan tourism promotion campaign and reducing public workers' benefits.
He also said he'd move in his mid-February budget proposal to replace the unpopular Michigan Business Tax with a 6 percent corporate net income tax and asked legislators to eliminate a law that requires price tags on every item, noting Michigan is one of only two states that have the requirement.
"It's bad for business and it's bad for consumers," he said. "Let's make item pricing one law that's out of stock."
Business and agriculture groups applauded the governor's speech, saying he was taking the state in a welcome new direction.
"The governor is sincere in his passion for agriculture's role in Michigan's economic recovery and he is fully committed to reforming government and revitalizing our state," Michigan Farm Bureau President Wayne Wood said in a release.
Others, however, said they were waiting to see more details of his proposals and how he planned to pay for them. The state is facing a shortfall of about $1.8 billion in the budget year that starts Oct. 1, and Snyder's plan for switching to a corporate income tax could deepen the hole to $3.3 billion.
"Gov. Snyder struck the right tone of bipartisanship tonight. But the devil's in the details when it comes to how we pay for providing good schools, protecting our waters and air from pollution and making sure our streets are safe and roads and bridges are rescued from disrepair," said Frank Houston, campaign director for 40 organizations that make up the group, A Better Michigan Future.
Snyder said he has set up a state website that will track 21 measures in key areas such as economic growth and health and education that he'll use to measure whether Michigan is making progress toward becoming healthier, safer, better educated and better run.
"We will measure and measure and measure, and that is how we will succeed," he said. "The focus will be on agreeing on action, implementation, measuring results and continuous improvement. We will not continue the fighting that resulted in rhetoric and paralysis. It is time to solve problems."
Unlike his predecessors, Snyder didn't use a teleprompter and handed out only an outline of his speech rather than his complete address. He spoke for nearly 50 minutes, introduced his family at the beginning of his speech and wore a tie - a concession to the formality of the occasion from a governor who prefers forgoing them.
Interestingly, his declaration that he wants lawmakers to approve the bridge project known as the Detroit River International Crossing had Democrats on their feet, but few Republicans. The new bridge is opposed by the private owners of the nearby Ambassador Bridge, who have donated heavily to lawmakers in the past to block it.
"Every farmer and manufacturer in the state can tell you why it is important to have world trade. This new bridge will create jobs, strengthen our economy and help establish Michigan as a hub for global commerce," Snyder said.
Michigan's unemployment rate dropped to 11.7 percent in December, its lowest rate in nearly two years but still well above the national average. To help attract jobs, Snyder said the state needs to establish a new initiative to encourage immigrants with advanced college degrees to come to Michigan to work and live.
He also asked lawmakers to protect farmers who run environmentally sound operations from unnecessary regulations and frivolous lawsuits and to quickly pass a bill that would allow the state to complete 117 recreation and land acquisition projects recommended by the Natural Resources Trust Fund. To help the state's largest cities recover, he plans to create an Office of Urban Initiatives with offices in Detroit, Grand Rapids and the Flint-Saginaw area.
He also hopes universities can spur the economy through a new program being offered to the state's 15 public universities that will partner with Procter & Gamble Co. to turn research into marketable ideas faster by simplifying the legal process companies and universities use to negotiate research projects.
Snyder repeated his claim that schools, universities and state and local government have heavy pension and benefit costs that must be trimmed, and said local governments will get incentives through revenue sharing payments if they address those issues.
The governor said relatively little about education, but pledged to deliver a special message on education to the Legislature in April, following a special message on government reform he'll present in March. Snyder is in a hurry to have most of his major initiatives in place by July 1, and on Wednesday told lawmakers he wants them to pass next year's budget by May 31.
On health care, Snyder said he wants all Michigan citizens to have access to preventive care through primary physicians, make sure women get prenatal care and build a system that encourages everyone to get an annual physical, stop smoking and lose weight if they're obese.
"I can see we have a group more encouraged about dieting than others," he quipped as lawmakers applauded.
Republican lawmakers who control the House and Senate praised Snyder's first address, while Democrats gave a more cautious thumbs-up until they know more details. Most said they liked the ideas Snyder proposed.
"We've got a road map," said Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, R-Monroe. "We've knocked down some of the trees and we're starting to put a path together. We're not ready to pave yet, but I think we know where we're going."
Online: Michigan Dashboard, a site to measure the state's success.