Doctor: Lack of legislative urgency hurts Flint

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Mackinac Island — The pediatrician who discovered high levels of lead in Flint’s children hopes to get the state’s public policy leaders and business executives more engaged in the Flint water crisis recovery during this week’s annual Mackinac Policy Conference.

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, who is scheduled to speak for 10 minutes Wednesday afternoon, said she sees slowing motivation among state and federal government officials to marshal the financial aid needed for long-term health care for lead-exposed Flint children and adults and replacing lead-leaching pipes that caused the public health calamity.

“It’s absolutely mind-boggling that the state Legislature hasn’t passed the supplemental for Flint. This is an emergency,” Hanna-Attisha said in an interview before the conference. “We have a clearly demarcated population that does not have access to safe drinking water.”

The Flint doctor is especially irked the Legislature still has not sent Gov. Rick Snyder a final bill for his proposed $128 million Flint aid package three months after he laid out the plan in February for the fiscal year that ends in September.

“Emergencies don’t happen in regular budgetary timelines,” Hanna-Attisha said. “There definitely is a feeling of a lack of a sense of urgency. ... Pipe removal ... I don’t think it’s going anywhere, and we are six-plus months back on treated water and we still have homes with super-high levels in the water.”

A new statewide poll shows resolving Flint’s water contamination crisis is a top issue for voters, but Flint leaders hope to make it the No. 1 priority for Michigan’s 1,700 business and political leaders attending the Detroit Regional Chamber’s annual confab at Mackinac Island’s Grand Hotel.

A survey of 600 likely Michigan general election voters found 16 percent said Flint’s lead-tainted drinking water is the second most important issue facing Michigan. The Flint crisis trails jobs and economy at 27 percent, but it was deemed more pressing than education funding and quality as well as fixing the state’s roads, according to the poll conducted by the Glengariff Group Inc.

The Lansing-based polling firm did not give voters a list of issues to choose from. Respondents named off their top issue to a telephone operator, pollster Richard Czuba said.

“The Flint issue didn’t show up until this year,” said Czuba, president of the Lansing-based Glengariff Group. “It’s a big issue, particularly with Democratic voters. They are really engaged on that issue.”

Funds put on slow track

Lawmakers moved the additional Flint aid package along with the 2017 fiscal year budget, putting it on a slower track for likely passage next week. Federal aid proposals for Flint have been stalled in Congress for months amid politically charged hearings and a multitude of investigations led by federal, state and county prosecutors.

The Detroit Regional Chamber has focused this year’s policy conference on what needs to be done to make Flint’s water clean again, while steering clear of the thorny subject of how toxic lead entered the water supply and blood streams of residents in Michigan’s second largest African-American city.

“What we didn’t want to do was play the who’s-to-blame game,” said Sandy Baruah, CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber. “We didn’t want to get into that.”

Over the Memorial Day weekend, Mackinac conference planners added a Flint panel discussion after online education pioneer Sal Khan abruptly canceled his keynote speech.

Flint Mayor Karen Weaver, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley and Charles Stewart Mott Foundation President Ridgway White will talk Thursday about how government and philanthropic foundations can work together to help the city recover.

Calley has been on the ground in Flint nearly three days a week helping coordinate the state’s response to the crisis, which Weaver has criticized at times. The Flint-based Mott foundation has led an effort to pool $125 million from philanthropic foundations for Flint’s long-term recovery needs, including $100 million from its own endowment.

Baruah said the added Flint panel was not in response to complaints about the conference agenda initially appearing light on Flint given the magnitude of the emergency and the national scrutiny it has brought to Snyder’s Republican administration.

“The amount of complaints I have about this conference, through what’s not on the agenda, would fill a filing cabinet,” Baruah told The News.

Resignation on federal aid

Hanna-Attisha will use her 10 minutes on stage to both talk about the crisis and make a pitch for donations from conference attendees to the Flint Child Health & Development Fund. Donors from all 50 state and 10 countries have contributed $6.7 million to that fund, which is known as the “Dr. Mona Fund” because Hanna-Attisha made the first donation.

“We’ve never used a conference to raise funds for anything, but we’re going to do it for the first time for Flint,” Baruah said.

The Community Foundation of Greater Flint has set a goal of raising up to $100 million for the Flint kids fund to pay for universal preschool and early childhood learning, home health care and nutrition programs aimed at reducing the long-term effect of lead exposure, which causes developmental delays in children.

The fund also could be used to plug holes where tax dollars come up short for long-term costs, Hanna-Attisha said.

“I’ve also become resigned to the fact that government isn’t going to fix this completely,” Hanna-Attisha told The News. “Because it’s become so politicized, we’ve gotten zero from Congress.”

U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, also will speak at the conference during a Friday morning national politics panel discussion.

Kildee said business leaders should be more concerned about Flint because the crisis has cast a pall over Michigan’s national image.

“If any of these folks are concerned about the reputation of our state, they need to think about Flint,” Kildee said in an interview before the conference. “This crisis continuing to fester makes us look bad.”

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Twitter: @ChadLivengood