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Michigan Gov. Snyder’s Regional Recipe Central to Fix-It Agenda

“We cannot win the future with a government of the past,” President Obama said last week, before promising a proposal to “merge, consolidate, and reorganize the federal government in a way that best serves the goal of a more competitive America.”

He can learn something from Michigan’s Rick Snyder, the Republican governor who is retooling Michigan’s government, or significant parts of it, so that it is clearly in the service of the state’s metropolitan areas, its economic engines.

In his state of the state speech, Snyder pledged to make the state’s regions the drivers of state economic development policy, with state agencies in their service. “We have a number of very strong regional groups that are capable of taking the lead in the field.” This is a very mild-mannered way to describe a significant inversion of state policy. States usually don’t even recognize their regions, seeing instead a fractured map of hyper-local jurisdictions, commissions, and boards. And they certainly don’t tell them, “You show us the way, because you know best.”

Under Snyder, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) will station representatives in Michigan regions to make sure that state programs and policies complement, rather than complicate, local efforts. An Office of Urban Initiatives with outposts in Detroit, Grand Rapids, Saginaw, and Flint will also be created.

MEDC will take on the role of “clearinghouse--a best practice center,” helping one region replicate the successful strategies of another when it comes to opening up markets for export or luring foreign investment. Again, this is something new--a vision of metropolitan areas as a group of linked entities that all contribute to the state and to each other. This usefully ignores old regional turf wars.

Colorado’s John Hickenlooper, New York’s Andrew Cuomo, and Tennessee’s Bill Haslam have all promised similar sounding bottom-up regional economic development strategies.

One of the challenges of making regions and metropolitan areas more central in politics and more prominent in policy is that there aren’t regional mayors or metropolitan legislatures. There aren’t the same kinds of democratically legitimized leaders and public institutions that higher levels of government are used to working through.

The new pragmatic governors of Michigan, Colorado, New York, and Tennessee are trying to work with the regional governance, not government, organizations that do exist--collections of business, civic, philanthropic, and government leaders. If they show how this can be done, how these networks can be tightly integrated into the machinery of policy, then other states and the federal government can follow suit. America may be on the verge of getting the metro policy that it sorely needs.