Sen. Lee outlines objections to Flint-inspired aid bill

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — U.S. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, is objecting to a Flint-inspired bill that he says would federalize the nation’s water infrastructure financing system, arguing that “federal aid is not needed at this time” in Flint.

“What’s really happening here is that Washington politicians are using the crisis in Flint as an excuse to funnel taxpayer money to their own home states, and trying to sneak it through the Senate without proper debate and amendment,” Lee said in a statement Friday. “I respectfully object.”

Lee has placed a hold related to the $220 million bill, delaying a vote on the measure until next week at the earliest.

The bipartisan legislation is sponsored by U.S. Sens. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, and Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, as well as Republican Sens. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, and Rob Portman of Ohio.

The bill includes $100 million for subsidized loans for water infrastructure improvements through the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund for any state with a federal emergency declaration due to a public health threat from lead or other contaminants in the public drinking water supply. Flint is the only community that now fits the definition.

Another $70 million would help finance costs for up to $700 million in secured loans for water infrastructure through the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act Fund at the Environmental Protection Agency. About $50 million would be directed toward a lead exposure registry and three children’s health programs related to lead exposure.

Calling the lead contamination of Flint’s drinking water a manmade disaster, Lee argues that Congress has special mechanisms for emergency spending but, to date, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder has not requested any money from Congress, “nor have Michigan’s senators proposed any,” Lee said.

Michigan’s senators did propose emergency funds for Flint but met resistance from Republicans. In floor remarks last month, Stabenow highlighted GOP comments that Flint is a local issue.

“The fully funded federal disaster relief fund that we passed last year ... we are only asking, Mr. President, for a very small amount,” Stabenow said.

In January, Snyder sent a letter to President Barack Obama asking for $96 million in federal emergency aid to help with the public health emergency in Flint, but Obama denied the request under the Stafford Act due to the man-made nature of the crisis.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has said only natural catastrophes, fires, floods or explosions warrant a major disaster declaration.

On Thursday, Snyder asked FEMA to reconsider its denial of his aid request, seeking more federal funding from programs for emergency protective measures and for disaster repairs in homes.

Lee’s office acknowledged Snyder’s January request but said Snyder hasn’t made a similar request of Congress.

“There are a number of ways Congress could give money to Flint, including passing an emergency loan just for the city,” Lee spokesman Conn Carroll said. “We would much much prefer that than a new program that could be used by other cities.”

Lee’s office said that, to the extent the federal government is responsible for Flint’s water problems, city residents who believe the EPA should have acted sooner to address the lead contaminated water can pursue damages in court.

Lee noted that Michigan has a large budget surplus, a rainy-day fund worth hundreds of millions and a request of $195 million for Flint by Snyder to the state Legislature.

“Relief and repair efforts are already in the works. The people and policymakers of Michigan right now have all the government resources they need to fix the problem,” Lee said.

“And those public resources are being augmented every day by the generosity of individuals, businesses, labor unions and civic organizations of every stripe from across the country. The only thing Congress is contributing to the Flint recovery is political grandstanding.”

The Michigan Legislature has committed $67.3 million so far to Flint, including $30 million to reduce water bills for residents and businesses until the water is deemed safe to drink.

Stabenow and Inhofe were aiming for a vote next week; however, Lee’s objection could derail that plan.

Stabenow stressed Friday that the bill would not only help Flint families but invest in drinking water infrastructure for many cities.

“This bill doesn’t increase federal spending by one penny – it’s fully paid-for,” Stabenow said in a statement.

“I am extremely surprised that Sen. Lee would be holding up a bipartisan bill that would help communities across the country including in his home state of Utah. If Sen. Lee opposes this bipartisan bill, that is fully paid-for, he should vote against it, but he should not block it from even getting a vote.”

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