LANSING — With criticism mounting, Gov. Rick Snyder apologized again Tuesday for his administration's handling of lead-tainted drinking water in Flint and demanded more accountability from the state departments that report to him.
He also asked lawmakers for more than $28 million in the current fiscal year to deal with escalating costs in Flint, which is grappling to control a public health crisis that is getting more expensive.
The House appropriations committee approved the funding request early Wednesday, with the bill passing the full House later in the day as the legislature works to meet Flint’s more immediate emergency needs. The measure now heads to the Senate.
Snyder used his annual State of the State address to announce he will take the unusual step of releasing two years' worth of emails related to the Flint water crisis Wednesday in response to critics who are calling for more transparency. The governor's office is exempt from the state's Freedom of Information Act. That release, however, will involve only the governor’s emails and not those of others in his office.
"I am sorry, most of all, that I let you down," Snyder said Tuesday, speaking directly to Flint residents. "You deserve better. You deserve accountability. You deserve to know that the buck stops here with me."
Snyder placed part of the blame for the Flint water crisis on the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, the state's water regulator, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency before issuing a directive to all state departments — that similar situations in the future be brought to his desk immediately, without excuse.
Critics say the administration's response to the crisis has been slow, and questions are swirling about when Snyder first learned of the increased lead levels. The crisis already has forced out two DEQ officials, ex-director Dan Wyant and spokesman Brad Wurfel.
It was a somber start to his annual address. But Snyder made it clear that solving the crisis in Flint — both the city's immediate water and health needs, as well as identifying long-term infrastructure and public health solutions — is the administration's top priority.
Lawmakers say Flint won't crowd out other key policy issues, including rewriting Michigan's energy law and reforming the state's criminal justice system, although Flint and a proposed restructuring of Detroit Public Schools are likely to require the most immediate attention.
Where the money would go
The bulk of the extra funding requested for Flint, $17.2 million, would be spent on immediate health and water needs, including bottled water, filters and replacement cartridges, according to a letter Budget Director John Roberts sent Tuesday to the Legislature.
That amount also includes support for local community health organizations through diagnostic tests, visits from nurses and crisis counseling; two child and adolescent health centers; extra medical services for every Flint school; and two epidemiologists who will analyze blood lead levels in Flint ZIP codes and help examine potential links to other illnesses, such as Legionnaires' disease, which is suspected to have originated from contaminated water.
The city's water crisis stems from a decision made under a Snyder-appointed emergency manager to switch water sources without proper treatment from the Detroit system to the Flint River, which is more corrosive and contributed to lead leaching from old pipes. Elevated levels of lead later turned up in the blood of Flint children.
Snyder's administration last week confirmed 87 cases of Legionnaires’ disease — and 10 deaths — in Genesee County since June 2014; a link to contaminated water is suspected, but not yet confirmed.
The administration also will ask lawmakers to approve for Flint:
- $5.8 million for a study to examine Flint's water infrastructure, extra lab tests, one year of corrosion control and other water needs.
- $2 million each to cover emergency efforts in Flint, including the costs of replacing plumbing fixtures in schools, child care centers and adult foster care centers and nursing homes, and to cover three months' worth of salary, travel, lodging and meal costs for the Michigan National Guard, which is distributing bottled water door to door.
- $935,000 for nine extra school nurses in the Flint school district, as well as two early childhood service coordinators, a psychologist and a health professional for wraparound services within the Genesee Intermediate School District.
- $100,000 in extra operating funds for the Flint Water Interagency Coordinating Committee, created this month by executive order to address long-term public health issues.
"This is just the start," House Speaker Kevin Cotter, R-Mt. Pleasant, said, adding that he believes the Legislature will be quick to adopt the amended budget for Flint. "We know there are going to be long-term needs."
In October, legislators approved more than $9 million in supplemental funding for Flint.
Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a Flint pediatrician who helped expose the elevated lead levels in city kids' bloodstreams, told reporters Tuesday she wants the state to devote long-term resources for wraparound services to counter the irreversible effects of lead poisoning, including cognitive and behavioral problems.
That could include support for early education, nutrition, mental health and maternal and infant programs, she said.
"We need to think about what is going to happen to this population tomorrow," she said, "because lead is a tomorrow problem."
Snyder and lawmakers so far are focused on immediate financial needs. The state has a $575 million surplus heading into budgeting for the 2017 fiscal year; it's as yet unknown how much of that might be dedicated to Flint water-related issues.
"We’re going to be in this for the long haul," said Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, who has called for greater transparency and urgency from Snyder's administration. "This was state government's failing, and it's going to be important for all of us to make sure we focus on getting it right, whatever that dollar amount may be."
DPS reform also a priority
The state has another costly priority in Detroit Public Schools. Snyder has called for splitting the city's school system into two, with the existing DPS left to pay down an estimated $515 million in operating debt while a new Detroit Community School District is created to educate the city's students and manage all other operations.
Legislation recently was introduced in the Senate, but the bills face opposition from both Detroit and outstate lawmakers related to everything from the amount of local control to the amount of state money flowing into Detroit following its historic bankruptcy.
Snyder's administration wants the DPS legislation approved by the summer or the district risks becoming insolvent and winding up in court.
Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, said Tuesday the bills recently introduced by Sen. Goeff Hansen, R-Hart, are "a good start" after months of negotiations.
Also Tuesday, Snyder outlined several other priorities, including:
- Creating several commissions to address infrastructure, education and the economy. Statewide infrastructure priorities include aging water and sewer lines, electric grids, broadband Internet and the Soo Locks.
- Studying school funding, career and technical schooling and other ways to increase Michigan students' education outcomes.
- Creating the American Center for Mobility on roughly 300 acres at the former General Motors Willow Run transmission plant to study and develop autonomous and connected vehicles, which Snyder said will help Michigan remain a leader in the automotive industry.