Ideologues of the right are calling loudly for less government. Equally loudly, ideologues of the left want more government.
Both are missing the point.
What citizens want – and are entitled to – is competent government acting effectively to get important things done in a timely fashion in the public interest.
And more often than not, political factors lurk at the heart of episodes of governmental denial, evasion and incompetence.
Two sets of headlines last week provide convincing evidence.
In Flint, where many citizens have been for months in effect accusing the state of poisoning their children by tolerating unhealthy levels of lead in the drinking water, Freedom of Information Act lawsuits finally forced the state to disgorge emails showing that Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) bureaucrats evaded even acknowledging the water supply mess for months.
Now it turns out that Dennis Muchmore, Snyder’s now-departing chief of staff, wrote an email way back on July 22 admitting, “These folks (Flint residents) are scared and worried about the health impacts and they are getting blown off by us (as a state we’re just not sympathizing with their plight.)”
Despite that, lower-level officials at the DEQ pooh-poohed for nearly three months the seriousness of dangerous levels of lead in Flint’s drinking water. I don’t know if the governor actually read Muchmore’s July email, but he sure should have.
My sources say it was only last month’s report by a special review appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder that persuaded the governor to finally accept that the Flint crisis was beyond serious and required top-level intervention. In a sharply worded report released last month, the task force found the DEQ’s response to community health complaints “was often one of aggressive dismissal, belittlement and attempts to discredit those efforts and the individuals involved.” That attitude, the panel concluded, was “completely unacceptable.”
I suspect the Flint situation is yet another instance of long-standing bureaucratic habits deeply imbedded in the DEQ.
My direct experience with the department goes back a decade to the days of Gov. Jennifer Granholm, when officials essentially ignored state statutes defining and prohibiting environmental damage from subsurface copper and nickel mines. Those who pointed out state law explicitly forbade the kinds of permitting decisions being made by the DEQ were given the same back of the bureaucratic hand so evident in the Flint water case.
How come? Political imperative always trumps governmental common sense. At the end of a somewhat heated conversation with a DEQ top-sider way back then, I was told, “Don’t think for a moment the political system in Lansing is going to tolerate state government not doing everything it can to increase mining employment in the U.P., regardless of what the environmental risks might be.”
Bureaucracies are routinely organized to protect those in power. So it’s not hard to see how bureaucrats in the DEQ, confronted early on by (maybe) ambiguous scientific evidence about lead levels in Flint water, figured their best strategy was to delay, deny and ignore a “small” matter like dangerous levels of lead in the drinking water in a big minority-majority city like Flint.
In the case of the Detroit Public Schools, now entering a terminal downward spiral into bankruptcy that likely will wind up hitting the state’s taxpayers, there is still not enough concern in Lansing to get lawmakers to take the situation seriously. Speaker Kevin Cotter (R-Mount Pleasant) has said repeatedly that his members are not interested in moving legislation to fix the $500-million-plus financial crisis in DPS’s balance sheet.
On the heels of the famous “grand bargain” that pulled Detroit out of bankruptcy, Gov. Snyder a year ago started his second term by calling for a financial fix for the Detroit schools mess. He tried to get support for his plan, which he estimates would cost $715 million, from a bunch of civic, education and business leaders; nothing doing.
Now it’s a year later, and it’s increasingly evident the legislature wants to duck this until we get to the lame duck session conveniently after the November election.
Now I understand that most outstate lawmakers’ districts do not include many, or any, minority parents in the Detroit school system whose children are getting near criminally low levels of schooling. And I get it that in an election year it won’t be popular for them to consider any fix for Detroit schools that might include give-backs from their school districts.
But it’s hard to figure out how our legislators are willing to tolerate inaction when the price to Michigan taxpayers (and their constituents) of doing nothing might well be hundreds of millions more than if they moved earlier, rather than later.
Both these episodes explain pretty clearly why so many folks are becoming cynical about both the workings and motives of government. The damage to public confidence is likely to far exceed the many millions of taxpayer money needed to undo these messes.
The cost to democracy may be even higher.