Conyers pushes law to penalize states with EM laws

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — A new bill in Congress seeks to withhold a portion of federal grant funding from states with emergency manager laws that permit “unchecked” decision-making by state-appointed managers in financially distressed cities.

The legislation is sponsored by U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Detroit, a longtime critic of Michigan's emergency manager law, which he sees as the basis for decisions made by former Flint emergency manager Darnell Earley and others that led to crises over lead water contamination in Flint and the deterioration of the Detroit Public Schools.

The Emergency Financial Manager Reform Act of 2016 would direct the U.S. attorney general to withhold 5 percent of the law enforcement funds that would otherwise be allocated to a state under the Edward Byrne Justice Assistance Grant Program. The attorney general would need to determine that the state appointed an EM who fails to protect against abuses such as harm to the public health or safety, conflicts of interest, mismanagement, and abuse of discretion or unilateral rejection of collective bargaining agreements.

The bill has 31 original co-sponsors, including Michigan Democratic Reps. U.S. Dan Kildee of Flint Township and Brenda Lawrence of Southfield.

“We cannot undo the damage already done by the lead-poisoned water in Flint or fix the harm already caused by the hazardous conditions in Detroit’s public schools,” Conyers said in a statement.

“But we can stand together and make sure the unaccountable emergency managers responsible for these disasters — and the legal system that empowered them — are not permitted to inflict further harm on our citizens or our constitutional rights.”

He said only lawmakers elected by the people should be making decisions for the people.

Lawrence said Michigan’s emergency manager law has allowed unelected officials to manage localities while “effectively silencing” the people’s voice.

“We cannot allow the failures of the emergency manager law to continue,” she said in a statement.

Kildee said Flint’s water crisis is an example of the “dangerous consequences” of emergency financial managers.

“They are entirely bottom-line focused, bringing a failed philosophy to government that puts saving money at any cost ahead of the livelihood of people,” Kildee said in a statement.

“Under Michigan’s current laws, democracy is suspended in cities like Flint in favor of absolute power in the hands of emergency financial managers. This legislation says that the people and their elected officials — not appointed emergency financial managers — know what is best for their communities.”