Will Michigan’s elite fudge Mackinac conference’s value?

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush prepares to board a carriage after delivering a speech at the Mackinac Policy Conference on Mackinac Island this week.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush prepares to board a carriage after delivering a speech at the Mackinac Policy Conference on Mackinac Island this week.

MACKINAC ISLAND, Mich. — Every year, the political and business elite of Michigan troop north to Mackinac Island, a tourist area otherwise known for horse-drawn carriages, the ever-present smell of fudge, and a hotel with the longest front porch in the world.

There, at a lavish event sponsored by the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce, policy makers rub shoulders, have often well-lubricated meetings, and hear a national figure or two speak. This year’s headliner was Jeb Bush, former Florida governor, brother and son of presidents, and possible future presidential candidate.

Sometimes, those who attend Mackinac make headlines. Sometimes, they get in drunken fights. Once in a while, they even agree on bipartisan and multiregional deals. But most of those deals, sadly, seem to get slowly forgotten as exiting lawmakers head down Interstate 75 to Lansing, Detroit, or other points south of Lake Huron.

As you are reading this, the conference is in its closing stages. But this year, things are different from before.

What happens on the surface at Mackinac is unlikely to have been startling. If the conference does bear lasting fruit, it likely won’t be apparent until some time after the last free drink was poured.

The real unwritten story of this year’s Mackinac Policy Conference may well have been the rare opportunity to get all the players in the dysfunctional state of Michigan together at one time.

Today, politics are in a strange state of upheaval. Bipartisan cooperation is all but nonexistent. Longtime Lansing watchers say relations between the parties have never been so bad.

The state’s largest city has lost the ability to govern itself. The ruling legislative Republicans seem to be simultaneously at war with teachers, unions, and their fellow GOP governor.

Lawmakers even seem increasingly to be at war with the people whose interests they allegedly represent, passing bills designed to thwart the popular will, and in some cases making it illegal for angry voters to overturn them by referendum.

Some things to think about:

● Gov. Rick Snyder, a political novice three years ago, won a landslide victory on a promise to avoid politics as usual — and a slogan of “relentless positive action” to get the job done.

During his first year in office, the governor stunned everyone with the range of his accomplishments. He got a major reform of the state business tax that included taxing pensions.

But this year, “relentless positive action” has meant relentless smashing into brick walls. When the governor, backed by countless studies, asked for $1.2 billion a year to put Michigan’s crumbling roads back in shape, his fellow Republicans virtually sneered.

When he urged lawmakers to adopt an expansion of Medicaid that would provide hundreds of thousands of Michiganians with health insurance at virtually no cost to the state, they declined. When he asked the Legislature to comply with federal regulations and adopt a health-care registry that would help citizens find the best private insurer, they refused.

Could he, as other Republican governors have done, make common cause with Democrats to pass his agenda? That tactic has been used by other GOP governors.

But that would be far harder for Mr. Snyder. Democrats still are seething over what they feel was his betrayal last December in making Michigan a right-to-work state. After consistently saying that wasn’t on his agenda, the governor suddenly changed his mind, and the union shop was outlawed in a day.

Republicans even added a token appropriation so that the bill couldn’t be repealed by a vote of the people. Since then, Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer has frequently and harshly denounced the governor. There is little indication that many of her colleagues feel he can be trusted.

● The agonies of the state’s largest city continue to worsen, even under Detroit emergency manager Kevyn Orr. Last week, Mr. Orr’s office shocked everyone by indicating that the city might consider selling the collections of the Detroit Institute of Arts to help cover the city’s $15 billion debt.

That may never happen, but the once-proud city is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. Mayor Dave Bing has decided not to try for a second term, and many City Council members are bailing out.

● The state’s biggest and toughest problem remains educating and preparing kids for 21st century jobs — another key focus of this year’s Mackinac conference. Tom Watkins, a former state superintendent of schools, says when it comes to education, “no one in their right mind would recreate what we have today.”

Mr. Watkins, who in 2010 nearly became Toledo Public Schools superintendent, said there is too much focus on irrelevant issues. “There will be lots of education talk on the island,” he said. “Here’s what we need to focus on: We have to put quality before school, be it traditional, cyber, or charter. All the ideological fights never educated a single child.”

Only half-facetiously, he added: “The governor ought to lock smart people from across the spectrum in a horse barn on Mackinac and tell them they can’t come out until they have reinvented Michigan for our kids’ future.”

That’s unlikely to happen. But there is a growing awareness that Michigan is failing at public education, at maintaining its infrastructure, and at achieving a public consensus that works.

If anything at Mackinac works to move the needle significantly in any of these areas, the conference may be more than worth every mile the 1,000 or so attendees drove to get here.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade’s ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

Contact him at: omblade@aol.com