Washington — After weeks of talks, Michigan’s U.S. senators have reached a deal with Republican negotiators on a federal assistance package for Flint, although it’s unclear how the larger GOP caucus will greet it.
The proposal would allow the stalled bipartisan energy bill to advance, while the $220 million Flint-inspired measure would be considered as stand-alone legislation, lawmakers said. None of the $220 million would be guaranteed for Flint because rules prohibit earmarks.
The bipartisan legislation is sponsored by U.S. Sens. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, and Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, as well as Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
Other sponsors are Republican Sens. Rob Portman of Ohio, Mark Kirk of Illinois and Richard Burr of North Carolina as well as Democratic Sens. Barbara Boxer of California, Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Dick Durbin of Illinois.
The timing of the vote is still unclear but could come as early as Thursday or roll over to next week, Stabenow said.
“We basically are putting forward something that will be extremely meaningful for Flint and also create opportunities for communities in other states to be able to apply for infrastructure funding,” she told reporters on a Wednesday call.
The measure would include $100 million for subsidized loans for water infrastructure improvements through the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund for any state that receives a federal emergency declaration due to a public health threat from lead or other contaminants in a public drinking water supply system.
“Right now, that is only Flint — only Michigan. There are others that may be eligible down the road,” Stabenow said.
The state would first have to submit a report on how funding would be used to combat drinking-water contamination before any funds could be drawn. If unused after 18 months, the $100 million would revert to the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act Fund at the Environmental Protection Agency.
“We want to have the state to have a great sense of urgency moving forward,” Stabenow said of the deadline.
Another $70 million in the legislation would be applied toward financing costs for up to $700 million in secured loans for water infrastructure across the country through the WIFIA Fund.
The bill also would require the EPA to alert the public of high lead levels in drinking water when a state agency fails to do so for more than 15 days. A nearly unanimous House approved a similar EPA-notification bill this month and sent it to the Senate for consideration.
The Senate may substitute the House bill into the Senate’s Flint legislation, then send it back to the House for consent, Stabenow and Inhofe said.
“Most importantly, this legislation is not just about Flint but is about the nation as a whole. The media’s attention to Flint has put a spotlight on the crisis we face across the nation due to a failure to address aging water infrastructure,” Inhofe said in a statement. “Congress can and should take necessary action to support the critical infrastructure that keeps Americans safe and makes way for new economic opportunity for our nation.”
The bill would give Michigan and other states the flexibility to use funding through the federally funded Drinking Water Revolving Loan program to forgive past water infrastructure loans owed to the state. Flint owes nearly $21 million in such loans.
About $50 million would be directed toward national health programs for efforts such as health registry, and more funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Fund. An advisory committee would be created to review federal efforts related to lead poisoning research and services, and to make recommendations to Congress and the administration on how to improve health, education and nutrition responses.
Stabenow and Peters had sought a Flint funding package of up to $600 million, largely to help replace and rebuild water infrastructure that has corroded and is leaching lead into the city’s drinking water supply.
Senate Democrats this month blocked a vote to advance the energy bill over the issue. The disagreement with Republicans has been largely over how to pay for, or offset, the package’s cost.
Funding for the current proposal would include $250 million from rescinding the credit subsidy for the Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing Program for automakers for loans issued after Oct. 1, 2020.
That program, created in 2007, helps auto and parts manufacturers retool plants to produce more fuel-efficient vehicles. She and Peters previously objected to spending adjustments that would have affected the program.
Inhofe on Wednesday called it a failed program that hasn’t been used in more than a year and has only issued five loans since 2008.
Stabenow said the program may continue to issue loans until funding sunsets in five years.
“Certainly, it was not our preferred offset. We worked very aggressively for the fund,” Peters said, while noting a provision of the Senate energy bill that invests in research to boost fuel economy and benefit the auto industry.
Some Republicans have said it’s premature to consider Flint aid before Michigan has crafted a plan for repairing water lines in the city. Such a plan from Gov. Rick Snyder has been delayed in part because of the difficulty in mapping Flint’s water system.
Under the Senate proposal, the attorney general and inspector general of the EPA would report to the Senate and House on the status of investigations into the state and federal responses to the contamination of Flint’s drinking water. After these probes conclude, the comptroller general would review and report on the adequacy of the state’s and EPA’s response to the crisis.
In January, Snyder sent a letter to President Barack Obama requesting nearly $800 million in emergency disaster assistance for Flint.
Snyder told the Detroit News Editorial Board on Monday that he has had inquiries from some Michigan delegation members on the Flint crisis, but he has not actively lobbied for any pending bills in Congress.
“That’s their responsibility,” Snyder said of the delegation, noting the Michigan Legislature has approved about $70 million for Flint to date that he requested.