What politicians consider important and what voters think is important are often two different things. It's good to dig a little deeper from time to time to understand the public's real priorities.
That's what the centrist think tank The Center for Michigan did in producing "Michigan Speaks," its effort to articulate a people's agenda for the 2014 state elections. Repeating a similar initiative it conducted before the 2010 state ballot, the Center interviewed a mix of 5,500 Michigan residents in 150 "community conversation" meetings, two telephone polls and an online survey to find out what they considered the most urgent state issues. The top issues didn't include tax cuts, the minimum wage, same-sex marriage or similar hot-button topics politicians like to talk about. Instead, four issues stood out of both broad and deep concern: fixing Michigan's roads and infrastructure, improving educational performance, improving college affordability and intensifying the fight against poverty. All were rated as "urgent" priorities by at least 70 percent of the people interviewed.
When it comes to state finances in general, there's no public consensus - about a third of Michiganders favor tax cuts, roughly a third want tax increases and the remaining third would like to keep things the way they are. However, the Center for Michigan found a clear mandate (71 percent in community conversations) for upgrading roads and infrastructure, with more than half saying they would be willing to pay more taxes to get the job done.
- Road funding is an issue where politicians sorely misjudged the public mood, and now they're racing to catch up. Legislators thought they'd serve up voters an election-year tax cut to win their favor; instead, they found out voters wanted real road and highway improvement. Now Michigan legislators are in the unfamiliar position of trying to outdo each other in raising revenue in an election year.
- Improving education is a familiar and unsurprising theme, and it remains at or near the top of the agenda for most Michiganders, with 81 percent of Center for Michigan respondents identifying improving K-12 performance and 79 percent ranking raising high school completion rates as urgent priorities. What stood out more was the high percentage (78 percent of participants in the community conversations) who called college affordability - a topic not at the top of most politicians' agendas if it's there at all - an urgent issue. (Ninety-five percent of participants said it was at least a medium priority.)
Maybe not enough legislators realize Michigan ranks 45th in the country in college affordability and the average Michigan college graduate has more than $27,000 in student loan debt. College affordability is an issue that hits hard at the middle class and threatens the basic goal of every parent of helping their children succeed and advance in life. We think politicians ignore this issue at their own peril.
- When it comes to fighting poverty, the Center found Michigan residents deeply divided about how to do it but united in their view that it's a key issue (70 percent of community conversation participants rated it an urgent). Ethnic minorities, part-time workers, the unemployed and low-income workers all rated poverty as a top issue, but with 1.6 million Michiganders below the poverty line, almost everyone knows people affected by it.
As the Center notes, these aren't the only four issues Michigan voters care deeply about. Topics such as the minimum wage, cutting taxes and streamlining government regulations evoked strong sentiments in conversations and polls, but yielded deeply divided opinions and no public mandate. Respondents were also divided on how to address the questions they considered most pressing, but "Michigan Speaks" is designed as an agenda for discussion rather than a prescriptive policy statement. Instead of trying to curry favor with small segments of the electorate by stressing narrow "wedge" issues, we hope candidates talk seriously about the questions a great majority of state voters care about.
- The Holland Sentinel