Flint crisis looms large for Snyder’s State of State

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — One year after outlining his optimistic vision for a “river of opportunity,” Republican Gov. Rick Snyder is swimming upstream as he prepares to deliver Tuesday night his 2016 State of the State address.

Protesters are expected to gather outside of the Capitol ahead of the governor’s speech, seeking to “hold him accountable” for drinking water contamination in Flint that threatens to overshadow the rest of his agenda for the year ahead. Snyder will detail a comprehensive strategy to deal with the Flint crisis during the State of the State address, Snyder Chief of Staff Dennis Muchmore said Friday.

Late Thursday, he requested that President Barack Obama declare a federal emergency in Flint and supply aid. Obama approved Saturday $5 million in emergency assistance.

The public health crisis may help drain $575 million in one-time surplus money that majority Republican lawmakers originally hoped to spend instead on more road repairs, a long-promised income tax reduction and other programs.

Legislators begin the year with a list of unfinished business from Snyder’s 2015 agenda that will demand their attention for months. It includes a proposed $715 million Detroit Public Schools bailout, a complicated energy policy overhaul and politically contentious criminal justice reforms.

“There’s more work to be done, and I’m willing to roll up my sleeves and partner with the mayor and the city of Flint to do what needs to be done to solve this problem,” Snyder said last Monday in Flint. “At the same time, I will give a State of the State address and talk about some other initiatives. I hope we have a broad enough team where we can work a parallel path on a number of other important topics to the future of Michigan.”

While critics continue to question Snyder’s handling of the crisis — and whether he responded quickly enough when independent scientists discovered high blood levels in the water and blood of children — the administration has ramped up relief efforts in recent weeks. Late Thursday, he requested that President Barack Obama declare a federal emergency in Flint and supply aid.

The governor on Tuesday activated the Michigan National Guard to aid in the distribution of bottled water, filters and testing kits. He also requested coordination assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which quickly agreed to participate.

“The political sensitivity of a chemical contamination event is high in this state,” said Paul Welday, a Republican consultant and former chairman of the Oakland County GOP. “Water is one of our greatest assets, so he’s really got himself an issue that he’s got to wrestle with in a big way.”

Snyder may soon seek supplemental funding for Flint, but he said this past week the request is unlikely to occur during his State of the State address but will probably happen before his early February budget presentation.

Snyder should address the issue head on in the speech, said John Truscott, a public relations expert who was spokesman for GOP former Gov. John Engler.

“First, express sympathy for the people,” Truscott suggested. “I think this provides him with a nice opportunity to apologize on a much bigger scale with a lot more people watching. And he needs to lay out some of the very concrete steps they’re taking.”

Snyder should also outline future plans for Flint residents and the city’s aging infrastructure, said TJ Bucholz, a political consultant who worked in the state health department under Democratic former Gov. Jennifer Granholm. The corrosive Flint River water caused old lead connections to leach into the drinking water.

“You’re talking about a generation of Flint residents who will invariably have to deal with this problem for decades,” he said, referencing the long-term effects of lead poisoning. “I think it is certainly the most significant public health challenge for Michigan in the 21st century.”

While Snyder’s focus has turned to Flint, he also faces serious challenges in the state Legislature, where Republican majorities last fall completed just one of his top four priorities and left the others for this year.

“First and foremost is DPS,” said Snyder Press Secretary Dave Murray. “There’s an urgency there. We need to improve academics as well as the district’s financial structure.”

Democrats, upset with the governor for signing controversial voting and campaign finance bills approved late last year, will be needed to advance any package to alleviate the debt of the Detroit school district, which the state may ultimately be liable for in part or whole. Some Republicans are hesitant to support a DPS bailout after approving a $195 million package to help get the city of Detroit out of bankruptcy.

Sweeping energy bills that would affect electric choice rules and update lapsed renewable energy mandates with more flexible goals advanced to the House floor in November. But the bills were not put up for floor votes in December despite intense lobbying by the state’s largest utilities, which wanted prompt action as they begin to retire aging coal-fired power plants and plan to replace some of the electricity with natural gas-fired facilities.

Criminal justice reform has pitted Snyder and his legislative allies against Attorney General Bill Schuette and many county prosecutors. House-approved “presumptive parole” legislation, which would allow more prisoners to be eligible for parole after serving their minimum sentences, is stuck in the Senate because of Schuette’s opposition.

The complexities of an election year and a looming battle for control of the state House could make life difficult for Snyder, said Bill Ballenger, founder of the Inside Michigan Politics newsletter. Bucholz said Snyder appears to be approaching lame-duck status with three years left in his second and final term.

The question is how Snyder will use the State of the State address to add to his legacy beyond the Flint crisis, which he said he knows is part of his permanent record.

“This is part of my legacy,” Snyder acknowledged this past week. “I’m responsible for the whole state and their operations, but there are other good things going on, and we’re working hard to recover from this and doing the right things in Flint.”

Following his 2014 re-election, the governor used his 2015 State of the State address to articulate a vision for a smaller, more efficient state government focused on results instead of programs.

The goal was to help usher more residents into the “river of opportunity,” he said at the time, a phrase that no longer is trumpeted because of the concerns over Flint’s drinking water.

“If I were him, I’d forget he ever said it,” said Ballenger. “I would come up with a different metaphor at this point. It’s almost like sticking out your jaw and waiting to be slugged.”


Melissa Nann Burke contributed