One of John Nixon's passions is jumping on a bike to tackle the steep mountain roads in his native Utah, and he's expecting another uphill climb in his new job as Michigan's budget director.
"It's not that it (the state) hasn't been well-managed," the former Utah budget director told The Associated Press in a recent sit-down interview. "Michigan never came out of the 2002 recession."
Michigan has lost nearly 860,000 jobs since mid-2000 and is struggling to reduce its 12.4 percent unemployment rate. While this year's budget is balanced and may even run a slight surplus as revenues start to rebound, Nixon knows he's up against a shortfall in the next budget year that could reach $2 billion.
Nixon has seen far bigger shortfalls in Utah's neighboring states of Nevada and Arizona, so he considers Michigan's budget woes tough but manageable.
Still, there's a lot to learn after less than three weeks on the job. Nixon first flew to Michigan on a redeye flight so he could make Republican Gov. John Snyder's Jan. 1 inauguration. He has been buried in numbers and meetings ever since. Monday might have been a holiday for other state workers, but Nixon and others in the budget office were working.
"It's like drinking from a fire hose," he says. "It does take some time to understand."
For now, Nixon is fitting in early morning or late night rides on his spin bike in the living room of his downtown Lansing apartment and walking the four blocks to his office in the Romney Building across from the Capitol. He has made an offer on a house and hopes to be joined soon by his wife and six children -- three boys and three girls, ranging in age from 21 months to 14 years.
A Mormon, Nixon already has connected with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in East Lansing and with other Mormons in the area. He says he gains his greatest pleasure from spending time with his six children. Ask him to name a favorite book, and he's more likely to mention "I Love You Daddy" than the adult book he's reading, Dale Carnegie's "How to Stop Worrying and Start Living."
His favorite free-time activities in Utah have been fishing and hitting the roads on his high-tech Motobecane bike, and his favorite movies are a tie between "Uncle Buck" and "Tommy Boy."
"Life was good in Utah," Nixon says.
So when Snyder first called, Nixon wasn't sure he wanted to even discuss the job. He didn't know much about Michigan other than what his wife knew from her years attending high school at the Interlochen Arts Academy near Traverse City. Already president of the National Association of State Budget Officers, the 38-year-old had just moved into "the house of my dreams" in the suburb of Bountiful and wasn't paying much attention to inquiries from other states.
But then a former Michigan resident suggested he give Snyder's proposal a look. William Sederburg was a Lansing-area state senator from 1978-91 who served as Ferris State University president from 1994-2003. Now Utah's commissioner of higher education, Sederburg told Nixon the Michigan job could be a good opportunity.
"He's instrumental in why I'm here," Nixon said.
Snyder, too, proved persuasive. When the former venture capitalist and Gateway computer executive asked Nixon if he had the appetite to be part of the biggest state turnaround in history, Nixon decided the answer was "yes."
He's not giving away any details on what might be in Snyder's State of the State speech Wednesday or the budget proposal Nixon plans to prepare by mid-February. He shares Snyder's preference for less government spending and lower taxes and already has a record of making state spending more transparent, another goal Snyder has set in Michigan. He'd like to finally get rid of the structural mismatch between Michigan's tax revenues and spending.
"There's no more kicking the can. You just have to step up," Nixon says of the task ahead. "It's a new day in Michigan."
As executive director of the Utah Governor's Office of Planning and Budget, Nixon oversaw Utah's $11.6 billion annual budget. He's now overseeing Michigan's nearly $47 billion budget and heading the Department of Technology, Management and Budget. The combined job will bring him an annual salary of $250,000, twice what he was making in Utah.
Snyder and Nixon told the presidents of Michigan's 15 public universities last week that they hope to raise state funding when times get better, although they'll be calling for more belt-tightening in the short run. Nixon may soon be delivering a similar message to other groups that rely on state funds, such as local governments, school districts, health care providers and contractors.
"Sometimes you have to do less with less," Nixon says. "There are no easy decisions."