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House approves Snyder’s $28M ask for Flint crisis

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — The Michigan House wasted little time Wednesday acting on Gov. Rick Snyder’s call for $28 million in emergency funding to address Flint’s water contamination and public health crisis.

The House unanimously approved the fast-tracked supplemental spending bill, sending the measure to the Senate one day after the Republican governor urged action in his State of the State address. A constitutional provision will prevent the Senate from taking up the bill until Tuesday.

“Let’s stand with the people of Flint,” Rep. Al Pscholka, R-Stevensville, said before the 106-0 vote. Ninety-six members co-sponsored the measure.

Snyder lobbied for the bill Wednesday during a series of closed-door meetings with majority Republican caucuses, while cabinet and staff members gathered for a planned meeting with a contingent of Flint Democrats.

“I appreciate the House approving funding for the immediate steps I outlined in my speech last night about how we will work to heal Flint,” Snyder said in a Wednesday statement. “... The unanimous vote demonstrates to the nation that all of Michigan is standing together help the people of Flint.”

The bulk of the supplemental funding — $17.2 million — would go to the state Department of Health and Human Services to provide emergency bottled water and filtering supplies, fund local health inspections, home lead abatement and blood testing.

Another $3 million would go to the Department of Environmental Quality to help the Flint’s water fund stay solvent despite unpaid bills from residents unhappy with what’s coming through their taps.

“So many Flint residents, once they realized the severity of the water problem, stopped paying,” said Rep. Phil Phelps, D-Flushing, who estimated that 75 percent of all local customers are behind on their bills.

He thanked his colleagues and the governor for working to “change the narrative” in Flint and address the crisis.

The state funding would allow the city to decide whether it wants to absolve customers of their water debt, according to Pscholka.

“As I see it, if you can’t completely use the water, maybe we should be subsidizing some of those bills for a time until its deemed that maybe you can use that water,” Pscholka said.

The health and human services department would temporarily expand the Women, Infants and Children special food assistance program by raising the age cap to cover Flint children through age 10, instead of 5. Department of Education funding will also help provide students with nutritious food, including fresh fruit and vegetables, which can help mitigate effects of irreversible lead exposure.

Additional education funding will help Flint schools hire nine more nurses, a psychologist and a health professional to coordinate wrap-around services. Another $2 million for the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs would be used to replace plumbing fixtures in public, parochial and charter schools that test for high water lead levels.

Snyder, who has faced criticism for an initially slow response to the Flint crisis and lack of oversight by state departments, has escalated relief efforts in recent weeks.

The governor is increasing the number of National Guard members assisting with water distribution in Flint from about 80 to 200, and the supplemental spending bill includes $2 million to cover related costs for three months.

Over the past week, state workers and volunteers have been delivering bottled water and filters to about 5,000 homes per day with the goal of making contact with Flint’s 39,000 households by weeks’ end.

The $28 million spending bill is one step in what should be a larger legislative response to the Flint crisis, said Rep. Sheldon Neeley, D-Flint, who added more supplemental bills may be appropriate ahead of the governor’s 2017 budget recommendation.

The state is sitting on $575 million in surplus funds from 2015, and Flint Mayor Karen Weaver has said replacing underground lead water pipes could cost as much as $1.5 billion.

“Hopefully we can figure out a better strategy for using these good Michigan dollars than just providing tap filters and bottled water delivery systems,” Neeley said. “We have to move toward a more permanent solution.”

Snyder said in his State of the State address that the new supplemental spending bill will not be his last request for Flint funding. Facing calls to resign, the governor committed to solving the Flint crisis during his last three years in office.