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"Hard Times/Hard Choices" explores challenges of MI economy

By Mark Bashore, WKAR News



The national media spotlight continues to focus on Michigan's struggling economy. Tonight, Michigan PBS stations, including WKAR-TV, are airing a program called "Hard Times, Hard Choices." It's an in-depth look at the controversial options triggered by the state's toughest problems. The catalyst for the program was a unique event in Lansing last November. WKAR's Mark Bashore has the first report in our new on-going series on jobs, called "reWorking Michigan."

Two months ago, Public Television's Macneil-Lehrer Productions attracted over 300 diverse Michigan residents to downtown Lansing. Along with a smaller number of community, governmental and policy leaders, they spent the weekend hearing each other out on the state's most daunting challenges:
"Michigan has the highest unemployment rate in the nation, at more than 15-percent, and that rate is expected to climb. The state budget, although technically in balance, was in deficit by almost three-billion dollars, and that gap is expected to balloon dramatically over the next five years ."

The gathering---revisited in tonight's program---was a "deliberative poll." Here's how it works. First, a poll measures participants' current opinions on the state's "issues." Next, the deliberative part---hours of small group discussions of the problems, their causes and possible solutions. Finally, on the last day, an exit poll assesses how participants' opinions changed in the process. Stanford University social scientist Jim Fishkin created the deliberative poll in 1988. He says its goal is to get beyond what he calls the "surface opinions" of conventional polling.

"So our question in deliberative polling is what would the people think if they could become really engaged and more informed about the issues."

A key feature of deliberative polling is capturing those changes in opinion. Eva Ferguson-Smith was a participant who owns and operates a health food business in Ironwood, Michigan.

"Soon after finding out, you know, that our state legislators are the second highest-paid in the nation, I immediately wanted to be one of them." (laughter)

Joking aside, she admits the discussions changed her mind about the value of state job-retraining efforts:

"I have heard from a number of people who have participated in them, that it just a giant waste of money and that perhaps the training wasn't up to par with what was really required. I guess it was a retraining of a factory person into a green type job that was talked about and it was like 'Wow, that really worked. Let's do more of that.'
One of the most dramatic changes in tonight's program involves attitudes toward taxes and their impact on job creation.

(Participant): "I think that our government does a lot of things to discourage good jobs, especially in Michigan with the Michigan Business Tax." (Narrator): "And in a desire to attract new companies and create jobs, support for cutting the business tax jumped from 40-percent to 67-percent, a whopping 27-points."

Advocates say deliberative polling moves us toward a healthier democracy by better informing citizens. Many participants also say they plan to become more involved---from attending township meetings to getting on politicians' mailing lists.

Since 1988, important local and national issues have led to over 50 deliberative polls in over 20 countries. Creator Jim Fishkin says people's opinions change significantly about two-thirds of the time.

"They meet people they would never ordinarily talk to, but who have different social backgrounds, different experience and that's why they change."

Fishkin and other deliberative polling advocates say that, in an election year, better-informed public opinion may make Michigan's 'Hard Choices' a little easier.

Throughout 2010, WKAR will continue reporting on the state's job-related challenges in a series called "reWorking Michigan." Look for our reports on radio, television and on-line at wkar.org. In conjunction with Hard Times/Hard Choices' sponsors---The Kellogg Foundation and PBS---we have public forums on jobs and economic issues scheduled for February and March in Lansing, East Lansing and Jackson.

reWorking Michigan - For more on job creation and workforce evolution in Michigan, visit WKAR.org/reworkingmichigan

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