This column ran in Dome Magazine.
As Flint residents still lack safe drinking water, state and federal lawmakers continue to bicker over who should pay up to help them.
This high-stakes game of fiscal chicken has been going on for months, leaving long-suffering residents in limbo. When you consider that many citizens have been clamoring for help since the summer of 2014, it’s rather unbelievable that legislators are still playing political games.
So here’s where we’re at. The state has allocated $70 million for Flint, which sounds like a lot. But it’s only the proverbial drop in the bucket when you’re dealing with lead and legionella poisoning.
Gov. Rick Snyder and Democratic state lawmakers support more funds being spent on the environmental catastrophe in Flint, which would come in the form of a supplemental to this year’s state budget.
Over the years, legislators have routinely passed changes to the budget, sending additional funds to schools or state departments (in dire times, they’ve enacted negative supplementals, which are mid-year cuts). Supplementals are used in cases of emergency, like last month’s $50 million stopgap for Detroit Public Schools.
However, state House Speaker Kevin Cotter (R-Mt. Pleasant) has drawn the line at any more supplementals for the Flint water crisis. He said in March that all funding requests for Flint should be done through the process for next year’s budget.
Here’s the problem: Michigan’s budget doesn’t go into effect until Oct. 1. Does anyone truly believe that the people of Flint won’t need additional help in the next 169 days? And yes, this kind of help –– replacing lead pipes, supplying bottled water and providing health screenings –– does cost money.
It’s also just the right thing to do. It’s sad that some politicians have to be reminded of that basic concept.
Meanwhile, a federal aid package for Flint has been languishing in the U.S. Senate for months. First, presidential candidate Ted Cruz put a hold on the deal, but he backed away under scrutiny just before Michigan’s March 8 primary.
But now it’s being held up by U.S. Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), a tea party warrior with leadership aspirations who’s endorsed Cruz. Lee says he doesn’t want the feds to part with any money for Flint until the state taps its “enormous” budget surplus and “large” Rainy Day Fund.
“The people and policymakers of Michigan right now have all the government resources they need to fix the problem,” Lee said in a statement issued last month.
U.S. Sens. Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing) and Gary Peters (D-West Bloomfield) have lobbied heavily for the federal aid bill, with no success. Stabenow now says the best way to peel off opposition in the U.S. Senate may be if the state does pony up some additional funds.
However, for now, state and federal politicians seem content to point fingers at each other and do nothing –– while the people of Flint live in misery.
This crass political maneuvering does nothing for children who may suffer lifelong brain damage. This does nothing for people who must bathe in bottled water or risk rashes and sores.
And it does nothing to restore Flint residents’ trust in government, which has been shattered time and time again.
Then again, it’s worth considering that both Cotter and Lee hail from the conservative school of thought that government just doesn’t work. Perhaps this latest tussle over Flint funding is just a particularly crude way of proving that hypothesis correct.
Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at SusanJDemas.com. Follow her on Twitter here.