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Michigan GOP in no hurry to fulfill Rick Snyder’s environmental wish list

Dec. 21: That's a wrap! What bills passed, died in Michigan lame duck for the ages
Related: See what Michigan lame-duck bills we're tracking

LANSING — With one week left in the Legislature’s lame duck session, the end may be near for outgoing Gov. Rick Snyder’s proposals to fund cleanups of thousands of toxic sites, fix water systems and boost recycling.

Months after Snyder announced proposals for the projects, time is running out for the Legislature to take action. Lawmakers have shown little interest in his agenda, but observers caution that no proposal is dead until lawmakers adjourn for the year, likely next Thursday.

The term-limited Snyder already got one major item on his wish list this week, signing legislation to create an authority to oversee construction of a tunnel around the controversial Line 5 oil pipeline in the Straits of Mackinac.

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Two more high-priority bills remain for the Republican governor:

  • House Bill 5898 from Rep. Larry Inman, R-Williamsburg, would create a “Rebuild Michigan” program to fund fixes to Michigan’s broken water and sewer systems — and to replace lead service lines following the Flint’s water crisis. As initially proposed, the bill would raise $110 million each year through new water system fees and households would pay no more than $20 per year.
  • Senate Bill 943 from Sen. Mike Nofs, R-Battle Creek, would fund toxic cleanups and community recycling programs by increasing a 36 cent-per-ton fee to $4.44. Snyder has said the proposal would raise $69 million a year, with much of that going to cleanups.

The bills have faced a tough slog in a Legislature led by tax and fee-adverse Republicans.

But the House late Wednesday offered Snyder a glimmer of hope for his water and sewer plan.

The chamber approved HB 5898 with a major caveat: it removed the fee-raising provisions needed to fund the program.

Gideon D'Assandro, a spokesman for House Speaker Tom Leonard, described the move as more of a gesture of goodwill than a stamp of approval.

“The governor is working on this, and he’d like to keep working on it,” he said.

That legislation now sits in the Senate, but has not been assigned a committee.

Neither chamber has acted on Nofs’ bill to raise trash-hauling fees. As of Thursday afternoon, it remained in a Senate committee and a legislative deadline would wipe it out if the chamber failed to pass it by the end of the day.

But even if the bill dies, it’s still only mostly dead. Lawmakers can revive proposals during last-minute wheeling and dealing — such as by attaching its language to a surviving bill through amendments.

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“I wouldn’t count it dead until the end, to be honest with you. There’s always a way,” said Bill Rustem, a former adviser to Snyder and an environmental policy consultant. “It’s hard to predict.”

Ari Adler, a spokesman for Snyder, told Bridge Magazine that Snyder’s discussions on the waste-hauling fee increase “are positive and we’re hoping to make additional progress.”

Snyder “appreciated” Wednesday night’s “cooperative gesture” from House leaders in keeping the water fixes bill alive, Adler added.

Why does Snyder want to hike fees?

HB 5898 aims to fix Michigan’s deteriorating water and sewer systems.

Billions of gallons of untreated sewage flow into state waterways each year, and decades of deferred maintenance have left Michigan short about $800 million per year to meet water and sewer system needs, a commission assembled by Snyder estimated.

Additionally, new regulations spurred by the Flint water crisis require water utilities in 2021 to begin replacing all of their lead service lines — at a cost of thousands of dollars per line.

SB 943 aims to replenish the chief funding source for toxic cleanups: The Clean Michigan Initiative, a $675 million bonding program that voters approved in 1998.

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality is tracking about 3,000 polluted sites that are likely “orphans,” meaning the original polluter is gone and taxpayers must pay for cleanups.

And the state is increasingly finding PFAS — a group of hazardous “forever chemicals” used to manufacture everything from Teflon and Scotchgard water repellent to firefighting foam — in Michigan water supplies.

SB 943 would also fund community recycling programs; Michigan’s overall recycling rate of roughly 15 percent makes it last among Great Lakes states.

If the Snyder-backed legislation dies? Lawmakers would still face the daunting funding problems — albeit with a new governor: Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat.

“Problems don’t go away at the end of the legislative session,” Rustem said. “You’ve got to fix it, or you’ve got a bigger problem.”

Would these proposals affect negotiations on other high-profile legislation headed to Snyder’s desk?

Snyder has repeatedly said he doesn’t play politics by trading support on one piece of legislation for another. Instead, Snyder said he considers each bill on its merits.

“That’s been his consistent pattern,” Rustem said.

But all bets could be off as Snyder’s tenure ends, Rustem acknowledged.

“Particularly in a last year of a governor’s office, they’re in their own unique time. The governor isn’t coming back, and a bunch of these legislators aren’t coming back. It’s hard to predict.”

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