Flint aid fight escalates as federal funding stalls; Stabenow says state should fill void
Flint — Mayor Karen Weaver and Gov. Rick Snyder said Friday they are worried about the hold-up on federal funding to help with Flint’s lead-contaminated water, but Michigan’s senior U.S. senator said the state should fill the gap until congressional aid is approved.
Weaver said she’s concerned the national focus on Flint’s crisis has waned in the past month and put at risk a multimillion-dollar aid package for the city’s recovery.
Democratic presidential contenders Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders made Flint ground zero in their Michigan primary campaigns, filming TV ads about the city’s plight and holding a televised debate at Flint’s Whiting auditorium two days before the March 8 primary, which Sanders won.
Weaver, who supported Clinton, said declining national interest in Flint’s water emergency has taken pressure off Congress to act on the Senate aid package promoted by Michigan’s Democratic U.S. Sens. Debbie Stabenow of Lansing and Gary Peters of Bloomfield Township.
“They brought a lot of attention, and I’m hoping that it’s not going away, because that’s the residents’ concern that it will go away,” Weaver said after a meeting of government and private-sector leaders coordinating Flint’s recovery.
Republican Gov. Rick Snyder also expressed disappointment Friday that U.S. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, is blocking up to $220 million in federal aid for Flint to remove lead-leaching pipelines and pay for long-term health care needs of residents exposed to toxic lead in the water.
“I’m waiting for the federal government to step up,” Snyder told reporters after a meeting of the Flint Water Interagency Coordinating Committee. “We’re doing our part in state government and will continue to move forward.”
Lee has said Snyder and the Republican-controlled Legislature should tap the state’s $565 million rainy day fund to pay for Flint’s needs — an idea Clinton was talking about this winter on the campaign trail.
The bill that Michigan’s senators have negotiated with some Republican senators includes $100 million for subsidized loans for water infrastructure improvements 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.
Stabenow said Friday that she and Peters have tried to negotiate in good faith with Lee about the Flint to no avail.
“Every time we thought we had an agreement with Sen. Lee, he changed the goal post,” she said in a telephone interview with The Detroit News. “We’re through trying with him because it’s clear he does not want to get us this assistance for the people of Flint.”
Stabenow said the Snyder administration should be focused on what it can do to help Flint instead of complaining about the pace of the federal aid package.
“It’s very hard to hear the governor talk about waiting for the federal government,” she said. “On health, nutrition and education, tens of millions of dollars have been committed through the Obama administration.”
The Lansing Democrat said the Snyder administration could be stepping up to fill in the funding gap while the wrangling in the U.S. Senate sorts itself out.
“People have waited too long,” she said. “The state has resources and should be stepping up now.”
Michigan House Speaker Kevin Cotter, R-Mount Clemens, has said he does not plan to take up any more of her supplemental appropriations for the Flint water crisis. Flint funding in Snyder’s proposed budget will go through the Legislature’s normal appropriations process, Cotter said.
This means any further funding likely wouldn’t be approved until June and distributed to the city by October, the start of the new fiscal year.
The Legislature has appropriated $67 million to Flint since October for water supplies, relief efforts and reimbursing residents for a portion of their water bills for water they couldn’t use between April 2014 and April 2016.
Flint’s ‘state aid unprecedented’
During Friday’s committee meeting, Snyder called Flint’s emergency state aid to date “unprecedented” in modern state history.
The governor asked lawmakers in February for an additional $25 million for replacing lead water service lines in Flint.
Weaver said the slowing response to Flint’s crisis is breeding mistrust in the community of the water and government agencies trying to fix it.
“I just think this (crisis) should be at a higher level when you live here and have to deal with this on a daily basis and you see the lack of trust that’s going on in this community,” Weaver said. “That’s a disaster in of itself as far as I’m concerned.”
Michigan’s congressional delegation is exploring other legislation to which to attach the Flint aid package.
“We will continue to seek a path forward for our legislation to help the people of Flint, who are still living without clean, safe water,” Peters said in a statement.
Snyder acknowledged he hasn’t spoken with House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, or Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, since Senate leaders hashed out a deal this week on an energy modernization bill that left out the Flint aid.
“But we’ll be following up with our people in Washington on having dialogue to encourage them to continue to move forward,” Snyder told reporters.
U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, this week pressed Ryan to have the chamber consider emergency aid for Flint.
“I respectfully request that Congress consider a Flint aid package, especially as we are set to consider other public health emergencies and humanitarian crises, including the opioid epidemic, the Zika virus, or the fiscal situation in Puerto Rico,” Kildee wrote in the letter.