Howes: Flint water mess showcases government ineptitude

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

Gov. Rick Snyder’s declaration of emergency in the Flint water crisis is overdue, more grist for the proposition that cynicism about government ineptitude is a bipartisan thing.

The evidence is overwhelming. From myriad screw-ups in Obama’s Washington (see the IRS, veterans health care, Solyndra, the Affordable Care Act) to GOP-controlled Lansing, signs continue to mount of official callous disregard for delivering basic governmental responsibilities to the people who pay the bills.

After months of dithering and denial, the state of Michigan finally acknowledged its culpability in the serious threat to public health — especially to children — of lead-contaminated drinking water coming from the Flint River. All it took was the report of a task force for the governor to catch up and endorse what the public, local politicians, academics and the news media had been reporting for months:

Flint’s water, drawn from its nearby river on orders from the state, is an unambiguous danger to public health. The fact that it took months — months after Flint was reconnected to the Detroit Water System — for the state to begin taking accountability for missteps engineered on its orders is an indictment that stands on its own.

The Justice Department, through the U.S. Attorney in Detroit, is helping the Environmental Protection Agency investigate. The national news media is on the case, along with Twitter-fueled screeds from Cher. And the country gets fed another helping of epic dysfunction manufactured by Michigan in one of its most prominent majority-minority cities.

Wonderful. It might be funny if the stakes and the implications for the long-suffering residents of Flint weren’t so serious and laced with racial overtones. There’s nothing funny about the Flint water mess, or the fact that this isn’t the first demonstration of bureaucratic incompetence complicated by legislative intransigence.

The continuing downward spiral of Detroit Public Schools, and the increasingly ominous obligation of state taxpayers, apparently still is not enough to prod Republican lawmakers to move on the governor’s DPS rescue plan to avert a financial implosion with statewide ramifications.

Speaker Kevin Cotter, R-Mount Pleasant, shows little urgency to craft legislation to remedy the deepening financial morass that is the DPS balance sheet — a debt load ultimately backed by the taxpayers of Michigan, as the governor has repeatedly stressed to lawmakers little interested in cold, hard facts.

A year ago, Snyder launched his second term with an ambitious effort to follow Detroit’s historic bankruptcy, successfully concluded on Dec. 10, 2014, with a workout for the city’s deeply troubled public schools. He had a plan; he waited for recommendations from a broad coalition of educators, civic and business leaders before airing his; and nothing happened with either.

A year later, Detroit parents and their school-aged kids are still waiting, waiting for the adults who call the shots but mostly don’t live with the consequences to address the problem. The Legislature owns it, too, because DPS worsened under state oversight and financial management.

That’s not all. The campaign to repair Michigan’s crumbling roads and bridges, a farce of blame-shifting, appears to have produced an insufficient package despite a widespread, and bipartisan, push from the public to fix it.

And now Marathon Petroleum Corp. is asking the good folks at the state Department of Environmental Quality — the same people behind the Flint water debacle — for permits allowing the refinery to increase emissions at its sprawling operation in Southwest Detroit.

Cynicism about government? You bet — and the people of Flint, along with the parents, students and teachers of DPS, have every right to be angry. The failings of their local politicians to halt respective financial slides, culminating in the state oversight they detest, are being compounded by state incompetence and comparatively petty priorities in the Legislature.

Apologies and resignations, task force reports and declarations of emergencies, are starts. But they are poor substitutes for executing the basic functions of government, particularly safeguarding public health, educating children and maintaining the infrastructure financed and used by everyone, regardless of race, sex or party.

Yet the prevailing instinct, if the seven-plus years since the global financial meltdown are any indication, is to vest more power in government bureaucracies that work more poorly the larger they get. That ought to tell you something.

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Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN.