Growth council hears new report suggesting funds for education, infrastructure to boost population

Guidehouse chart for GMTC

By Lily Guiney, Michigan Advance

The Growing Michigan Together Council (GMTC) met December 1 in Detroit to hear the findings of a new report commissioned to inform a future proposal to the state legislature and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer aimed at increasing Michigan’s stagnant population. 

Council members heard from partners at Guidehouse, the independent firm which put together the report on Michigan’s fiscal and demographic trends, about how the state stacks up compared to its peers in key areas like spending on education and infrastructure. 

The members of the council, including dozens of contributors serving on workgroups, said they’ve heard from citizens who cited improvements to roads, schools, housing and access to job opportunities as main concerns. 

Wayne State University Governor and GMTC Chair Shirley Stancato said that over the past several months, the council has spoken to around 11,000 Michigan residents to get input on what’s keeping them in the state— and what’s lacking. 

“11,000 folks spoke and here’s what they’ve said,” Stancato said. “They’ve told us how to shape our state so that we can see their future here in Michigan. They spoke about roads, transit, housing and access to education and job opportunities. And they shared why this work is so critical to their communities.” 

According to the report compiled by Guidehouse, which was heavily reliant on U.S. Census data, Michigan’s population has decoupled from national rates over the last twenty years, and the gap is unlikely to close anytime soon. Guidehouse partner Shaun Fernando said that the state’s population trends leave unanswered questions about where the workforce will be in ten years, or even twenty. 

“There was an upward trajectory from a population of 9 million in the early 80s, spiking to a population just nudging about 10 million in the mid 2000s,” Fernando said. “And for the last sort of 15 or 20 years, we’ve seen this sort of leveling off in terms of the population growth up until the present day 2023.”

“What you start to see happening in 2023 is to sort of give us a clue as to what might be in the future. And that future is uncertain.”

Slow population growth, Fernando said, could have a negative impact on the state’s ability to generate revenue on income and sales taxes.

While the council has yet to make an official proposal to state leaders that could include suggested changes to tax policies, some GOP officials have made it clear that they won’t support measures that increase taxes for Michiganders.

Prior to the meeting, House Minority Leader Matt Hall (R-Richland Twp.) voiced his opposition to the council’s ongoing actions, and said in a statement that subjecting Michiganders to possible higher property taxes would be “especially harmful.”

“The population council’s current proposal isn’t even a real plan and has no strategy to grow our population,” Hall said. “It’s just a long wish list for new revenues — tax hikes on Michiganders.”

He said that if the council’s final proposal includes recommendations to raise taxes, GOP members of the legislature will be quick to block them. 

“Instead of expanding housing options to bring residents to Michigan communities, hiking property taxes would raise housing costs for homeowners and renters alike,” Hall said. “If these high-tax recommendations are the council’s final proposal, it’s dead on arrival in the Legislature.”

Regardless of the avenue through which Michigan raises revenue, it appears that further investments will be needed to attract and retain a working-aged population in the state for future decades. 

Guidehouse associate director Kristy Throndson noted the $5 billion decrease in Michigan’s education spending over the past 15 years as a key factor in attracting workers to the state.

“This declining investment really puts at risk the educational outcomes in the state, which in turn can impact the state’s ability to attract those younger residents and families,” Throndson said. 

Aside from education, the report outlined other priority areas that could appeal to potential new Michiganders, including expansions to infrastructure— something Gen Z has made a centerpiece issue in calls for updated public transportation and affordable housing. 

Guidehouse analysts acknowledged that Michigan has seen improvements in spending on infrastructure in recent years, but that many of the sources of funding for those projects have come from short-term or temporary sources, like COVID-19 relief funding or federal grants through legislation like the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. 

Managing consultant Emily Plumley said that data suggests Michigan could stay ahead of the curve by making long-term plans to bolster infrastructure, but that the state could lag behind its peers if infrastructure needs go unaddressed. 

“Given what we see in Michigan’s infrastructure outcomes relative to peer states, they do indicate that perhaps Michigan’s infrastructure needs remain unmet and will continue to remain unmet if sustainable funding isn’t provided,” Plumley said.

One question that’s sure to remain pervasive in the construction of the GMTC’s proposal is how to draw a new generation of workers to Michigan— in a state that’s rapidly aging, Fernando said it will be crucial to boost the number of 20-34 year-olds living and working here. 

“One of the key population groups is really the working age population, folks who are graduating university but choosing to go elsewhere, maybe Chicago or New York to start their career,” Fernando said. “How do you retain them within the state?

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