New budget targets tens of millions for clean water, flood prevention programs

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Michigan's water infrastructure will receive millions of dollars extra in spending under the budget passed by the Michigan Legislature Wednesday after months of flooding in Detroit and outstate communities amid heavy rainfall.

The $50 billion general omnibus budget and $2.2 billion higher education budget were adopted Wednesday morning by overwhelming majorities in the House and Senate and head next to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer for her signature. 

Combined with the $17.1 billion K-12 education budget passed earlier this year, next year's total budget comes to about $70 billion. 

Truck drivers and other motorists maneuver through a flooded street in Highland Park on Wednesday. The budget plan approved Wednesday by the Michigan Legislature targets $14.3 million to help local governments prepare for extreme weather and coastal erosion, and $19 million for emergency dam safety provisions.

Lawmakers have another $10.5 billion on the balance sheets that they hope to use for priorities that include additional water infrastructure and climate resiliency projects. About $7.5 billion of the total additional funding is made up of federal COVID-19 relief funds.

"When this budget process started, the administration and the Legislature were miles apart," House Appropriations Chairman Thomas Albert, R-Lowell, said Wednesday. "I’m glad to see we were able to close the gap and to deliver what is a very solid budget for the people of Michigan.”

The GOP-led Michigan House initially floated a more stringent budget earlier this year that would cut funding for many agencies and move some to quarterly budget installments. Those plans eventually were abandoned for a spending plan negotiated between the GOP legislative leaders and the Democratic governor. 

The budget approved Wednesday is a 4% increase from Whitmer's proposed $67.1 billion budget in February and an 11.5% hike from last year's $62.8 billion spending plan.

Water infrastructure gets millions

Following a 2020 dam failure in the Midland area and regular flooding in the Detroit region this summer, lawmakers made spending increase commitments in the state's water infrastructure with the budget passed Wednesday, but they acknowledge more is needed. 

"That is one of the key items that we continue to look forward to having more discussions — using these federal dollars to protect the health with our water and our safety with the water as well," said Senate Appropriations Chairman Jim Stamas, R-Midland.

Next year's $70 billion budget includes $196 million for local bridge repairs, $14.3 million to help local governments prepare for extreme weather and coastal erosion, and $19 million for emergency dam safety provisions.

Since late 2020 and the Midland dam failure, the state has spent more than $350,000 to increase staffing in the Dam Safety Unit. In addition, the state Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy has spent a few million dollars on emergency efforts to stabilize the failed Edenville Dam. 

Under Wednesday's approved budget, another $10 million will be used to replace lead service lines in Benton Harbor, a reduction from the $20 million that Whitmer said earlier this month that she was seeking. Another $15 million would be added to a fund to help the state address drinking water emergencies and $14 million for PFAS contamination cleanup.

"This summer has shown us that if we do not make immediate investments to improve our infrastructure, our friends and neighbors will continue to face progressively worsening flooding we’ve experienced as a direct result of climate change and poor infrastructure," Rep. Laurie Pohutsky, D-Livonia, said Wednesday, referring to flooding in Metro Detroit. 

Rep. Joe Tate, D-Detroit, agreed more money would be needed to address the climate resiliency initiatives that would be need in Metro Detroit. He envisioned future supplemental budgets could address those issues. 

"Additionally, what’s going on in D.C. too is going to play into our process and how we’ll be appropriating funds," said Tate, the minority vice chairman for House Appropriations. "This is just a start for us.”

The lawmaker was referring to a $550 million bipartisan infrastructure package and a $3.5 trillion reconciliation budget filled with climate change and other social spending initiatives that Congress is considering.

Childcare, workers also targeted

The budget plan includes about $1.4 billion in child care spending that is expected to make 105,000 more children eligible for child care aid. It also contains a proposed  $700.7 million in child care stabilization and start-up grants, $158 million to allow child care providers a 30% rate increase and $117.4 million to pay for child care enrollment through 2023.

The spending plan also has several contributions to job skills and tourism programs including $40 million to Going Pro, $55 million to Michigan Reconnect, $25 million to Futures for Frontliners and $40 million to the Pure Michigan tourism promotion program. The programs provide college and continuing education scholarships as well as jobs training for workers.

The budget includes about $460 million for a permanent raise of $2.35 an hour to direct care workers caring for the elderly and other vulnerable individuals. 

The budget blueprint includes a roughly $150 million allotment that would be funneled into the Unemployment Insurance Agency Trust Fund to stabilize the fund after losses due to fraudulent jobless aid benefits.

Lawmakers would add $500 million in budget stabilization funding, which brings the total in the rainy day fund to nearly $1.4 billion.