Senate signs off on $30M for Flint water bills

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — The Michigan Senate on Thursday unanimously approved $30 million in new general fund state spending to reimburse Flint residents for lead-contaminated water they have not been able to drink.

The action was unexpected, coming just one day after Gov. Rick Snyder announced he would recommend funding for the “consumption and consumer use credit” next week as part of a budget presentation.

Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, told reporters he did not think the funding could wait for the traditional budget process, which is typically completed by June.

“Multiple levels of government have failed the people of Flint, and the result is exposure to contaminated water,” Meekhof said in a floor speech, urging support from colleagues. “It simply does not make sense that we’d expect the people of this community to pay for water they cannot drink. I believe that swift action today is reasonable and necessary.”

The floor vote was unanimous, but the debate was at times contentious. Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, said he appreciated the quick consideration of the bill but argued that $30 million in funding will not be enough to cover all residential water bills dating back to April of 2014, when the city switched to a new source.

Ananich proposed a failed amendment to boost the funding from $30 million to $60 million, a figure he said he arrived at through conversations with Flint Mayor Karen Weaver.

“We have the ability to do this right, and we should. We have the ability to reimburse the entire amount of the water that we now know is unsafe,” Ananich said. “…No good business person would expect only a partial refund for a product that was not only unfit for use but actually poisoned them.”

The Snyder administration estimates that water for drinking, bathing and cooking constituted about 47 percent of the Flint water bills in question. The $30 million in new state funding would cover 65 percent of those water costs but would not help cover sewer payments, according to the governor, who praised Thursday’s vote.

“We want to provide relief to Flint residents who were paying for water they could not drink,” Snyder said in a statement. “The entire state continues to demonstrate unity in coming together for the residents of Flint, and I greatly appreciate the acts of cooperation, bipartisanship and good will that are advancing Flint’s recovery.”

Ananich told reporters he was not aware that Meekhof would put the supplemental funding bill up for a vote on Thursday until Republicans walked out of a caucus meeting at the start of session. He suggested optics motivated the urgency.

“This is a step in the right direction, but it’s a lot easier to work together to solve a problem in my community then it is to try to do press conference, action, press conference, action. It’s a really stupid way to do things,” he said. “I just don’t want to do it that way. I want to find solutions that help the people in my community, not try to get better headlines.”

The state continues to advise Flint residents against drinking or cooking with unfiltered tap water. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality has acknowledged it failed to ensure corrosion controls were added when Flint began using local river water, which ended up leeching lead from aging underground pipes.

Democrats called the $30 million a “drop in the bucket” compared to the overall need in Flint, and Sen. Coleman Young II of Detroit said the state should start paying to replace damaged lead pipes.

Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr. of Meridian Township proposed an amendment for $3.55 million in additional state funding to expand access to the Women, Infants and Children program for nutrition, which can help mitigate the effects of irreversible lead exposure.

A separate $28 million funding bill signed Friday by Snyder would have allocated addition federal funding to expand WIC eligibility for Flint kids ages 5 to 10. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture rejected the governor’s request, saying federal statute prohibited it.

Hertel said the state should step up and pay for that expansion itself, but his amendment was rejected.

“We’re appropriating $30 million to pay off water bills because it’s the right thing to do, but paying off a water bill doesn’t address the issue of lead in the body of children in Flint,” he said.

Meekhof spoke out against the Democratic amendments before they were rejected, indicating that he was willing to discuss the ideas further but wanted to focus on the task at hand.

“What we’re dealing with right now is immediate relief for responsible rate payers,” Meekhof said.

The $30 million funding bill now heads to the House for further consideration.