‘Conversation’ focuses on state issues

MARQUETTE – Education, improving roads and decreasing poverty are top priorities for Michigan according to community leaders who attended a Wednesday “Community Conversation” on important state issues.

The event, sponsored by the Ann Arbor-based “think-and-do tank,” The Center for Michigan, took place at the Holiday Inn and solicited opinions on topics ranging from taxes, the environment and educational opportunities.

Hailey Zureich, outreach coordinator for the center, told the participants, “You are helping us set a citizens’ agenda for 2014.”

Their opinions, Zureich said, will be put in front of candidates during this election year, showing what citizens want for Michigan’s future.

The results of this conversation – as well as others held throughout the state – will be compiled and distributed to candidates and community leaders, Zureich said.

Participants were asked to rate what they considered priorities on a plethora of questions, punching in their responses on a keypad for immediate statistical results.

A total of 73 percent of the respondents, for example, said intensifying education and job training is urgent. Responses categories were urgent priority, medium priority, not a priority and “simply don’t do this.”

An even greater majority – 80 percent – said investing in roads, bridges and infrastructure is a top priority.

However, 36 percent of participants gave a minimum wage increase a “do not do” rating.

Specific issues such as college affordability and poverty also elicited responses.

Stephen Piereson, interim superintendent for Gwinn Area Community Schools, said financial aid to attend college used to involve mostly grants and scholarships, but now focuses on loans with increasing interest rates.

“At some point, there is a breaking point for middle-income families to get into and through universities,” Piereson said.

Chris Zenti, chair for the U.P. Children’s Coalition, said stopping poverty is crucial.

“It’s a generational problem, sometimes, and I think we’ll have to break the cycle of poverty, because it has such an impact on families and the community as well,” Zenti said.

Zenti also said early childhood development programs should be continued for children beyond age 6.

“We might just negate the gains we made,” she said.

Ways to handle taxes were discussed as well, with 62 percent saying state leaders should keep tax revenues and current government spending about the same, as opposed to cutting taxes and returning the savings to taxpayers or raising taxes and investing revenues in improved public services.

Among various choices participants were given regarding state spending, a high of 55 percent said they would decrease state spending for general government. The highest total for the question of where they would increase spending – 57 percent -was for K-12 education.

Zureich said anyone who wishes to take the Community Conversation online can do so at thecenterformichigan.net/.

Christie Bleck can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250.