Finley: Snyder’s address must be all about fixing Flint

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

Flint’s water crisis must be the headline and the heart of Gov. Rick Snyder’s State of the State address Tuesday.

Nothing else — with the exception of the meltdown of the Detroit Public Schools — matters in Michigan at the moment. There’s no point in the governor laying out a grand vision for the state, or introducing a wish list of new initiatives. First things first.

Tuesday is the governor’s chance to begin redeeming himself from an inexcusably slow and insensitive response to the disaster in Flint, and re-establishing himself as a leader who truly cares about the welfare of his state’s people.

Even with the crisis overwhelming his administration, Snyder has yet to deliver a formal and comprehensive response. His answers to what went wrong in Flint have dribbled out in press releases and short media interviews. But he has not stood before the people of Michigan and given an accounting.

That’s his assignment in his sixth State of the State address.

Snyder must explain in as much detail as he has available how two major state departments, Environmental Quality and Health, allowed lead and other contaminants to flow into Flint’s water system, where it poisoned the troubled city’s residents.

Who screwed up? And why did the departments so stubbornly resist warnings from experts and pleadings from residents and instead cling to test results that were clearly flawed and perhaps manipulated?

When the first jug of brown water was drawn from a tap in Flint and held in front of a television camera, why didn’t someone in the administration say, “Damn the tests, nobody should have to drink that stuff.” What exactly did Snyder himself know, and when? He should pledge full transparency, including the release of all executive branch e-mails and other correspondence in regard to Flint.

Next, the governor must assure state residents that he is quickly and thoroughly restructuring the culpable departments with the aim of ridding them of the incompetents who produced so much bad information and decisions. If those bureaucrats were not able to protect the people of Flint, they can’t be trusted to avert or detect the next environmental or health crisis.

The departments must be placed under a microscope.

A close look at state standards governing how much copper and lead in water is tolerable is essential. Are the limits tight enough to protect children? Does the state have the technology and expertise to detect dangerous levels of those metals?

Michigan’s public universities are chock full of the best scientists and research equipment in the world. That’s an asset the state should use to either supplement or replace the state employees who failed so colossally in Flint. Those professors and researchers are already on the state payroll — use them.

Top of the priority list is laying out a long-term plan for helping Flint’s children, who now face a lifetime of health and developmental challenges due to the lead in their bodies. Their parents must be assured the state will be there for decades to come to help mitigate the damage.

Flint’s infrastructure also must be fixed. No matter how many filters are attached to the water lines, it won’t be enough to convince residents the water is safe. What little economic development Flint has will dry up and blow away unless the water lines are ripped out and replaced. This must done on a hurry-up schedule. If the state has to float bonds to do the work, that’s the price of allowing this disaster to unfold while Flint was under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager.

Finally, Snyder must project empathy and urgency. He has seemed convinced he can address the disaster on an incremental basis, without trumpeting it as his No. 1 preoccupation.

What he has done recently is not insignificant. He has deployed the National Guard to deliver water and filters, released a task force report highly critical of the state’s performance in Flint, pledged to use some of the expected budget surplus to help the city and called on the federal government for help.

And still, more is required. Basically, Snyder is in the same position President George W. Bush was after Katrina. He’ll have to compensate for blowing the initial response with lots of big fat checks. This isn’t a problem he can fix with cookie jar money. He may have to bust the budget and dip into the rainy day fund, but Flint must have all the money it needs — now — to remediate the damage.

That’s what Snyder must do Tuesday night — and one more thing,

When he leaves the Capitol, his next stop should be Flint. He must face residents, talk to them, comfort them, say “I’m sorry” a thousand more times and assure them he’s working on their behalf.

Snyder is a much better governor than his handling of the Flint situation would suggest. Tuesday, he has the chance to prove it.


Follow Nolan Finley at, on Twitter at nolanfinleydn, on Facebook at nolanfinleydetnews and watch him at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays on “MiWeek” on Detroit Public TV, Channel 56.