Senate OKs $128M in Flint aid despite signs of fatigue

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — The Michigan Senate on Wednesday approved Gov. Rick Snyder’s request for another $128 million in current-year funding for Flint despite opposition from three Republicans, a sign that the legislative appetite for continued aid may be waning.

Sen. Pat Colbeck, R-Canton Township, noted that the Legislature had already approved $67 million to address the water crisis, telling reporters “we took care of the initial emergency” in Flint, where residents continue to rely on filtered and bottled water for daily needs.

“There’s a lot of other communities that have similar infrastructure issues, and I think we’re setting a precedent just like we did with the Detroit bailout and just like we’re talking about with the (Detroit schools),” he said. “You’re setting up community-specific bailouts, and a lot of other communities would benefit from the same sort of treatment as well.”

Sens. Colbeck, Judy Emmons of Sheridan and Tom Capserson of Escanaba also voted against the Flint supplemental spending bill, which was approved in a 33-3 vote. Previous emergency aid bills won unanimous support in the Legislature.

The Flint spending bill includes $45.5 million for emergency reserve funding, $25 million for utility infrastructure and water filters, $9.5 million for nutrition programs designed to mitigate the effects of lead exposure and $9.2 million for early-on child intervention services.

Voting against the funding amounts to “madness,” according to Sen. Coleman Young II, who noted Flint’s lead-contaminated water and a suspected link between outbreaks of deadly Legionnaires’ disease.

“The one-aloof governor and the Republican Party are responsible for the worst environmental disaster in the state’s history, maybe the nation’s history,” argued Young, D-Detroit. “You do not get to sit there and pick and choose and be stingy with the money when people are dying and their children are neurologically damaged.”

Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, acknowledged that there is some “fatigue” for additional Flint funding votes in the Republican caucus that could affect future requests for areas like underground pipe replacement.

“It depends on what it’s for and what the science actually tells us about pipe construction or any other thing we need to do,” he said. “I think the science will direct us a lot.”

The current-year Flint supplemental funding advanced to the House the same day the Senate approved a $55 billion budget for fiscal year 2017 that includes another roughly $35 million for Flint.

The Senate Appropriations Committee also unanimously approved a general fund transfer to facilitate Medicaid expansion in Flint, providing insurance coverage to 14,000 Flint children under the age of 21 and 1,000 pregnant women who may have been exposed to toxic in drinking water.

The federal government approved Snyder’s Medicaid expansion proposal two months ago, but the Legislature did not immediately approve funding as the Department of Health and Human Services prepared for implementation.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Dave Hildenbrand said that transferring money within the department’s budget will speed up the rollout, which is expected Monday, while the larger Flint supplemental continues through the legislative process.

“They submitted a transfer request and we did it that way just to get it up and running faster,” he said of the state Health Department.

The $4.4 million in general fund money will allow Michigan to access $16 million in federal funding for the expanded Medicaid coverage in Flint.

The supplemental funding bill approved Wednesday also includes $1.3 million in current-year funding for Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette’s ongoing investigation of the Flint crisis, which has so far resulted in criminal charges against two state workers and a city water plant official.

“That was important and I appreciate it,” Schuette said after huddling with Hildenbrand on the Senate floor.

The attorney general reiterated that the investigation will lead to additional charges, telling reporters that is likely to happen sometime soon.

“Absolutely, with capital letters,” Schuette said.

Senate debate over fiscal year 2017 budget bills proved slightly more divisive, including a $5 million proposal to reimburse private schools for costs associated with state mandates, such as emergency drills and immunization verification.

A House budget approved last week called for a smaller $1 million reimbursement for non-public schools despite opposition from Democrats, who argue that public funding for private schools is prohibited by the state constitution.

“As we know, all our school districts across the state are struggling for money,” said Sen. Morris Hood, D-Detroit, who proposed shifting the money back to public schools. “I think this $5 million is well-needed in the School Aid budget.”

Hildenbrand said the funding equates to roughly $50 per pupil for private schools that are forced to obey state mandates, and he’s confident it is permissible.

“I think the constitution is pretty clear that if it’s not instructional — state dollars can’t be used for educational or instructional purposes — and this is clearly more about student safety,” he said.

The Senate approved the $16.1 billion education “omnibus” budget in a 23-13 vote, with opposition from four Republicans and all nine Democrats who were present.

The plan calls for $150 million in new funding to boost per-pupil allowances by between $60 and $120 in K-12 schools. It does not include the $72 million Gov. Rick Snyder proposed for the Detroit Public Schools, which legislators are considering in separate legislation.

The Senate also approved a $38.8 billion general budget bill to fund all other areas of state government. The measure passed in a 26-11 vote, mostly along party lines.

The overall $54.9 million Senate budget includes $10 million in appropriations from the state’s general fund and is generally similar to the $55 million budget approved last week in the House.

The chambers are expected to iron out any budget differences in conference committee, setting the stage for a series of up or down votes by early June.

Before then, the Snyder administration and legislative analysts will convene for a revenue estimating conference.