The release of thousands of past Snyder administration emails regarding the Flint water crisis hint at emerging statewide issues in the near future.
Here are three:
Michigan's crumbling water infrastructure
Pipes aren’t sexy. Politicians don’t sweep into office talking about sewers and drinking water. Budgets aren’t sexy in campaign season, either, unless they involve open discussion of taxes. Politicians often try to win elections by promising to cut taxes. And both political parties have tried that approach in recent statewide elections.
In the wake of Flint, voters can expect to hear much more from candidates about pipes, budgets and taxes. One question: will that talk come in the form of platitudes or real policy discussion?
As aides crafted early drafts of the State of the State address late last year, Snyder Administration special adviser Rich Baird offered a warning for Michigan’s future.
“Start framing the infrastructure problem,” Baird wrote. “We have huge problems throughout the state with aged piping and plumbing. Ignoring it will be at the peril of future generations. We should put a number out there on what it is going to take to fix it or conclude it is safe for generations to come.”
The unwieldy numbers are in hand.
“If communities continue to use traditional methods to manage infrastructure, conservative estimates range in the billions to improve storm water, drinking water, and wastewater management systems over the next 20 years,” according to Michigan’s Draft Water Strategy published by the state’s Office of the Great Lakes last year.
Actually, for drinking water systems alone, the bill coming due is $13.8 billion in needed improvements or upgrades over the next two decades, according to Snyder Administration email documents released last weekend.
For some perspective, the $13.8 billion needed for drinking water repairs over the next 20 years is $3.8 billion more than the entire annual state general fund budget. And it’s $600 million more than the state will spend next year on public schools. In short, it’s a big number.
That price tag – plus billions more for sewer system upkeep – is the cost of preventing the next Flint drinking water crisis, preventing sewer failures resulting in pollution, and preventing industry from going outside Michigan for the water and sewer systems they need to do business in the future.
That high-minded draft water strategy calls on Michigan to “establish sustainable funding mechanisms” for “water infrastructure management.” But it’s anybody’s guess how all those needed water and sewer fixes actually get funded in the next 20 years.
Some hope a new Michigan legislature committee charged with investigating the Flint disaster will spread its inquiry into future statewide infrastructure needs. But the current culture in Lansing is not to open the state wallet willy-nilly for water infrastructure.
“I’ve heard some grumbling,” Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon reported to colleagues in October as the Snyder administration sought stopgap emergency funding to help Flint. “Some members feel it should be a loan, others worry that we are setting a precedent that the state will be asked to pay for similar upgrades in the future.”
Yet some legislators, including Republicans, are now talking about potentially framing an infrastructure ballot issue for 2016 or 2018.
State government transparency
In the wake of the Flint water crisis, there’s a rising call from government watchdogs and some in both political parties to make publicly available the email and other records of the Michigan legislature and the governor’s office.
The Michigan Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which governs public release of state and local government records, currently exempts the legislature and governor’s office from disclosure. Michigan is one of just two states that exempt both bodies from the state’s FOIA law.
Snyder has turned that secretive custom upside down in recent weeks as he voluntarily released under pressure thousands of administration records.
“Michigan residents have a right to get answers to any questions they still have,” the governor said in a press release last Friday. “With the release of these emails, anyone will have access to this information.”
The records released provide an extraordinary window into decision-making, public and media relations, political calculation, financial analysis and policy making in the governor’s office.
But don’t expect to see it again.
It’s clear that the writers of the many open, controversial, and in many ways deeply embarrassing Snyder administration emails never expected their thoughts to go public. In fact, in numerous cases, Snyder appointees and state department bureaucrats stamped their emails with phrases like “privileged” and “not subject to FOIA.”
If future governors and legislators are subject to FOIA, reporters and residents can expect that policymakers may be less likely to put many of their communications in emails or text messages. They can easily avoid the prying eyes of journalists and the public by just returning to the old way – the telephone – to discuss sensitive policy negotiations, controversy, or the inevitable political intrigue.
Then again, how quickly we (and political figures) forget. Text messages were a major part of Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s undoing just a few years ago.
Lead testing in Michigan schools
Just last week, the Battle Creek-based W.K. Kellogg Foundation released a 75-page guidebook for “Managing Lead in Drinking Water at Schools and Early Childhood Facilities.”
“School and early childhood facilities need to know if the drinking water they provide to children contains high levels of lead,” the Kellogg report declared. “Many parents, students, and communities across the country have found themselves in the position of discovering high levels of lead in their school’s drinking water either through a media news story or through the school’s sampling efforts.”
The report called on schools to develop profiles of their plumbing systems and work with state drinking water safety agencies like the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. The report further referred readers to a 12-year-old Environmental Protection Agency report to better understand lead monitoring in school drinking water in particular states. The EPA report stated that Michigan “has no specific lead in drinking water program.”
Watch for this issue to become more prominent in the weeks ahead.
Last fall, as the Flint crisis mushroomed, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality urged statewide schools with older plumbing to test drinking water supplies for elevated lead levels. MDEQ’s own tests in Flint showed three elementary schools with elevated lead levels.
But there are no statewide requirements on schools to do so. Schools that get their drinking water from municipal systems are not universally tested at the tap under state and federal water monitoring programs.
Snyder administration email records show aides scrambling to get a handle on the situation last fall.
“What happens in the rest of the state regarding water testing in schools?” Snyder Press Secretary Sara Wurfel asked colleagues in early October. “The Governor is still very much expecting – and we need – an answer.”
As of late October, MDEQ staff charged with testing Flint schools “know, as we do, that this is likely a statewide issue,” Anne Armstrong Cusack, the governor’s associate director for the Office of Urban Initiatives, reported in email.
Another Snyder aide, Stacie Clayton, related an October conversation with John Felske, superintendent of Muskegon Public Schools: “Felske has followed the developments in Flint during the past two months with concern, particularly since ‘every building in our district’ is more than 25 or 30 years old. Lead connections and plumbing fixtures with lead solder are likely in many buildings built before the mid-1980s. ‘We produce 1,080,000 meals in our public schools each year,’ Felske said. ‘Obviously, we’re using tap water to feed our children, let alone having them drink out of the water fountains.’”
Snyder aides called a number of schools, according to email records, and found some testing for lead and some not.
But, as Bridge reported last month, when a state representative recently proposed a statewide drinking water lead testing program in schools, the immediate MDEQ reaction was to raise cost concerns.
In December, Rep. Adam Zemke (D-Ann Arbor) requested MDEQ feedback on a bill he planned to introduce to require drinking water in schools be tested at least once every three years. MDEQ water regulator Liane Shekter Smith pushed back on the idea.
“Even if the proposal were to be for only lead and copper, this is a huge expense that would be placed on the supplier of water inappropriately,” she wrote. “I understand the desire to have this kind of information, but if the legislature wants to require this monitoring, the burden for this should be on the schools or the board of education.”
Shekter Smith has since been fired over the Flint water crisis.