Snyder: ‘Every corner’ of Mich. at risk with aging pipes

Jonathan Oosting, and Michael Gerstein
The Detroit News

Lansing — Every corner of Michigan is at risk because of aging infrastructure, Gov. Rick Snyder said Tuesday night in his annual State of the State address, pointing to Flint’s pipes and a massive Fraser sinkhole as he urged legislators to find ways to generate additional funding.

The second-term Republican used his agenda-setting speech to tout the state’s economic resurgence, including recent population gains, and set a goal of growing the state’s population back above 10 million in three years, which would require adding about 71,000 residents.

“Let’s put them to work in Michigan,” Snyder said in a speech that established several goals but was criticized for a lack of specific policy proposals and a relatively short discussion of the ongoing Flint water contamination crisis.

While upbeat, the governor acknowledged challenges facing the state, including growing unfunded liabilities that have the potential to cripple local governments and the silent threat of crumbling infrastructure exemplified by Flint and Fraser.

“We cannot take this for granted,” Snyder said. “Michigan residents deserve safe, reliable, sustainable infrastructure.”

Michigan needs to invest “billions of dollars” to modernize transportation, water and communications systems across the state, he said, citing estimates from his 21st Century Infrastructure Commission.

Snyder did not propose any specific funding mechanism but urged legislators to consider all public and private options, including fees, taxes, grants and bonds.

“We need to start now,” he said.

Democrats blasted Snyder for failing to provide more details in his speech, for not focusing more on improving life for Flint residents and for not mentioning any plan to compensate tens of thousands of residents that a faulty state computer system falsely accused of fraud between 2013 and 2015.

“This is another scandal that we’re seeing over and over again,” said Sen. Jim Ananich, D-Flint, who assured reporters during a press conference that if Snyder isn’t serious about crafting specific political programs, the Democrats in both legislative chambers are.

Macomb County Public Works Commissioner Candice Miller, a Republican and former congresswoman, said she was “disappointed” the governor did not spend more time talking about the Fraser sinkhole, which he used to illustrate the need for infrastructure funding without proposing a solution.

“I appreciate the fact that he talked about infrastructure and asset management,” Miller said. “... I think he could have fleshed that out a little bit more.

“We’re really the canary in the coal mine there.”

Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, acknowledged infrastructure needs around the state but said the Republican-led Legislature is unlikely to approve any new fees or taxes until it can assess the impact of a $1.2 billion road funding law that began to take effect this year.

In areas like Fraser, “local governments can pass millages to support sewer lines and other things like that,” Meekhof said. “I want them to take the responsibility and find out what happened, because it’s their asset. If they ask us for help, we would consider that.”

Rather than new fees or taxes, Meekhof and other Republican legislators are instead pushing to reduce and eventually eliminate the state’s 4.25 percent personal income tax, a topic the budget-minded governor did not address.

A year after devoting much of his speech to the Flint water crisis, Snyder spent roughly two minutes discussing ongoing efforts in the city, where residents are still advised against drinking unfiltered tap water.

He called the crisis “unacceptable” and noted his year-old vow to “fix” it, highlighting a total of $234 million in investments the state has made in Flint, including $27 million for underground pipes and additional resources for health initiatives.

“We’re making progress, but our work is not yet done,” Snyder said, giving a shout-out to Flint Mayor Karen Weaver, who attended the speech and said she was happy to hear the governor pledge continued help for her city.

“Although we’ve replaced pipes leading to nearly 800 homes, we still don’t have enough money from the state and federal governments to fulfill my pledge to replace all the lead-tainted service lines,” Weaver said in a statement. “That needs to change.”

Known for his business-casual attire, Snyder wore a suit and red tie as he addressed a crowd of hundreds of legislators, officials and their guests that included Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan.

The Republican governor used the forum to tout Healthy Michigan, the state’s unique form of Medicaid expansion for low-income residents under outgoing Democratic President Barack Obama’s signature health care law.

Roughly 640,000 Michigan residents are now on the Medicaid program, which faces an uncertain future as President-elect Donald Trump and the GOP-led Congress work to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

“When it comes to the federal government, we hope for the best but realize we can’t count on it,” said Snyder, who did not endorse Trump but has vowed to work with him. “There’s going to be changes in health care.”

The governor said Healthy Michigan recipients have made over 2.8 million primary care visits and said hospital costs for uncompensated care have decreased more than 40 percent from 2013 to 2015, “saving millions of dollars.”

“The important thing is we need to let them know that Healthy Michigan is a model that can work for the rest of the country,” Snyder said of the federal government. “We should be speaking out, and I look forward to working with my federal partners to talk about the value of this program and how it can even be enhanced.”

Gilda Jacobs of the Michigan League for Public Policy said she was “thrilled” to hear the governor stick up for the Medicaid program and hopes he will continue to be “an ambassador for the really good parts of the Affordable Care Act and Healthy Michigan.”

“We’ve got a Republican caucus in D.C. that drastically wants to eviscerate this program that we know works,” she said. “The governor is a pretty pragmatic guy.”

Michigan’s Republican-led Legislature, which reluctantly approved Snyder’s Medicaid expansion plan after adding personal responsibility requirements, is essentially taking a wait-and-see approach on a program the state could not afford on its own.

“640,000 people is a very large number,” Meekhof said, referencing enrollment numbers that have far exceeded initial projections. “It really depends on what the federal government thinks they’re going to do on repeal and replace.”

House Minority Leader Sam Singh, D-East Lansing, said he and other Democrats can agree on the broad points in the speech about needing more jobs, improving the economy and helping the state’s veterans.

“But unfortunately there weren’t a lot of details,” Singh said.