Dems, GOP spar on role of new Flint water committee

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Michigan lawmakers will hold hearings on the Flint water crisis, leaders announced Tuesday, but Republicans and Democrats disagree on what role the new panel should play and whether it needs subpoena power.

Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof and House Speaker Kevin Cotter on Tuesday announced creation of the Joint Committee on the Flint Water Public Health Emergency, appointing four Republicans and two Democrats to the panel.

The panel will discuss findings from other investigations, take testimony on “mistakes at all levels of government” and explore policy solutions to prevent a similar disaster, according to Cotter’s office.

“I want to make very clear, this is not an investigation,” said Sen. Jim Stamas, R-Midland, who will chair the new committee. He told reporters he does not plan to seek subpoena power to compel witness testimony and does not see the need because the committee will serve in more of an “oversight” role.

Instead, Stamas said he wants to hold hearings and “make sure that we find solutions for Flint and make sure we find solutions for all of Michigan.”

Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, who has spent three months calling for legislative hearings on the water contamination crisis in his hometown, said the hearings will need to function like an investigation to be productive.

“In order to make policy recommendations going forward, we have to find out what mistakes were made,” said Ananich, D-Flint.

“We have to find out motive, culture, capability of folks in these departments and find out why it happened and make sure it never happens again. But you have to have look back in order to have a well-informed future look.”

The date of the first hearing has not been set, and Stamas said he does not anticipate convening the panel until after the Office of the Auditor General and Gov. Rick Snyder’s task force have completed their reviews.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office is working with the Environmental Protection Agency to investigate the Flint crisis, and Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette has also launched a probe.

Snyder, who has apologized for the water crisis and pointed to failures at all levels of government, declared a state of emergency in the Flint region on Jan. 5.

Meehkof: Enough investigations

Meekhof, R-West Olive, initially resisted holding legislative hearings on Flint, but said Tuesday he thinks “enough work has been done on the investigatory” side to allow the committee to focus on public policy solutions.

“We’re not an investigatory body,” Meekhof said, also calling the new committee an “oversight” panel. “Those who are doing that have plenty of time to do that, and that’s their skill set, not necessarily ours.”

Ananich, who will serve as co-vice chairman on the joint committee and the only member from Flint, said he plans to introduce a separate resolution that would grant subpoena power to the panel, saying it would be a mistake not to exercise that rare authority to compel testimony.

Stamas and other Republicans on the committee will come around to the idea, Ananich predicted.

“I think once these individuals have been lied to as many times as I have, they’re going to want (subpoena power), and I’m going to have it ready for them,” he said.

State Rep. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, will join Ananich as co-chair on the committee. Sen. Joe Hune, R-Hamburg, was also appointed to the panel, along with Reps. Ed Canfield, R-Sebewaing, and Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor.

The Senate adopted a resolution to form the committee Tuesday morning, and the House is expected to follow suit later in the day.

Flint began using river water in April 2014 while construction continued on a new regional pipeline to Lake Huron. State environmental protection officials failed to ensure proper corrosion control treatments were added to the harsh water, which leached lead from aging pipes into homes. The city has also seen an outbreak of deadly Legionnaires’ disease.

“What happened in Flint is a tragedy, and the people who are affected deserve answers,” Cotter, R-Mount Pleasant, said in a statement. “People were hurt by widespread government failures, and changes need to be made as soon as possible. I am committed to doing everything I can to provide answers and prevent future disasters.”

$30M OK’d for Flint bills

The panel announcement came as a $30 million plan to credit Flint residents and businesses who were charged for contaminated water headed the governor’s desk.

The state Senate on Tuesday gave final approval to a supplemental spending bill requested by Snyder. Members unanimously agreed to minor changes made last week in the House.

The $30 million will be used to credit residents for 65 percent of the water portion of their bills from April 2014 through April 2016. Businesses will receive a credit for 20 percent of their bills.

“Our plan is to provide credits, covering the cost of water used for drinking, cooking and bathing,” Snyder said in a statement. “We’ll work with city leaders on how these credits are applied.”

To date, legislators have approved roughly $70 million in supplemental funding for Flint, beginning with an October appropriation to help the city switch back to Detroit’s Lake Huron water source.

The state is providing bottled water and filters to residents and recently awarded a $500,000 contract to Rowe Professional Services of Flint to study the city’s underground infrastructure for potential pipe replacement.