Sep 8, 2007

Policy summit brings diverse progressive groups together

LANSING – Only something as ambitious and progressive as the inaugural Michigan Policy Conference sponsored by the Michigan Prospect could bring together such diverse progressive groups - such as the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS) to the Jewish Labor Committee to organized labor and environmental groups - under one roof.

More than 500 people from Michigan’s progressive community gathered at the Lansing Center Saturday for an all-day summit to work toward getting all of Michigan’s diverse groups working toward building a progressive movement with common goals. The day featured breakout sessions and speakers, like former Gore-Lieberman 2000 campaign manger and Democratic National Committee member Donna Brazile and former Lansing Mayor and state Representative David Hollister. The summit centered on three policy areas: health care, clean energy and education.

Hollister opened the conference with a summary and preview of the day, and as a former mayor, state Representative and most recently the former director of the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Growth he has a unique insight into the three policy areas.

“Michigan and the nation are in a phase of transition,” he said. “It’s a time of tremendous change, and it’s also a time with exciting opportunities.”

Hollister said the aging of America is one of the biggest concerns facing the nation. He said today there are more than a million Americans who are 100 years old or older, and people age 85 and older are the fastest growing segment of the population. In 1950 there were 17 workers supporting one retiree, but that has shrunk to just three workers supporting one retiree today. That has placed a tremendous strain on both Social Security, as well as health care, as people live longer.

“It has a massive impact on things we do in America,” he said. “As we get older, what do we spend money on? Health care.”

Hollister said the health care system in the U.S. is broken and dysfunctional. We spend more than 17 percent of our Gross Domestic Product on health care, but there are still 48 million Americans without quality health care; with the number growing everyday. The escalating health care costs are making it difficult for U.S. automakers to compete globally because foreign governments are helping foreign auto companies compete by providing health care for employees for help with health care costs.

“Now, we are talking about legacy costs and shedding legacy costs,” he said. “Shedding legacy costs means more people without heath care.”

Hollister said the economy is also changing, and it illustrates a need for more investment in education. In 1950, 60 percent of jobs were for non-skilled labor, but now most jobs require at least two years of post-secondary education, requiring a K-14 education system in Michigan. Workers now have to be both functionally and technologically literate. We are also in a global economy because one out of six people now work for a foreign corporation.

“We are paying for the war in Iraq with money we are borrowing from China,” he said.

Hollister said entrepreneurs, non-governmental organizations and government have to be partners in the new economy. He also said all of the real job growth and success is occurring regionally instead of locally and statewide, such as the North Carolina region, the Boston metro area or the Atlanta region. Hollister also said it’s going to take investment in the state to make it grow, such as the Governor’s 21st Century Jobs Fund designed to spark new investment and creating high-tech companies and jobs and make the state a leader in life sciences, alternative energy, advanced automotive manufacturing and homeland security. The plan was to invest $100 million a year in those areas annually for a decade, but that only occurred in the first year in 2006.

“Unfortunately, the second year funds are tied up in the legislative process,” he said. “It is tied up in the budget mess.”

But Hollister said although things look bleak in Michigan with a 7 percent unemployment rate in the state and a looming budget crisis, things have been worse in Michigan.

“I was there in 1980 when the unemployed rate was 17 percent,” he said. “I was there when if five Japanese banks had not bailed us out we would have been bankrupt. We are not in a financial crisis, we are in a crisis of will.”

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