Conyers: Time to rein in Michigan’s emergency managers
A task force appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder confirmed last month what we had suspected all along — the water crisis in Flint was caused by emergency management. It’s time Michigan reins in its out-of-control emergency manager law. The questions now are: how our state got to this point, and what the lessons for reform are going forward.
When Snyder had just been elected governor and the Republicans took control of the Michigan Legislature in 2011, one of their first orders of business was to radically expand the Michigan financial distress law. The new statute granted EMs unprecedented powers to take over all aspects of local government — not just finances — and unilaterally reject collective bargaining agreements. Under Snyder, the frequency of EM appointments greatly increased due to the Great Recession and state-imposed cutbacks in local revenue sharing.
The result has not only led to public health disasters, such as Flint and the Detroit Public Schools, but numerous instances of conflicts of interest and abuse. This includes documented mismanagement by EMs in Pontiac (potential loss of $1.4 million in federal grant money), Highland Park (terminated for making $200,000 in unauthorized payments to himself), and Benton Harbor (exceeded budget and failed to make required pension contributions).
Worse still is the law’s encroachment on our constitutional rights, most notably by disproportionately targeting African-American voters. A recent academic study found that while 73 percent of black residents were subject to emergency management over the last decade, only 21 percent of whites were covered over the same period.
The EM law has also been found to contravene constitutional protections for collective bargaining agreements. Professor Kenneth Klee, a pre-eminent bankruptcy expert, testified at a 2011 forum I held that “no prior legislature has had the audacity to legislate the unilateral termination, rejection, or modification of a collective bargaining agreement” and that the law “is violative of (the U.S. Constitution’s) Contracts Clause.”
I, along with U.S. Reps. Brenda Lawrence and Dan Kildee, recently introduced legislation responding to the most problematic features of the EM law. We had little choice given that Snyder and Republicans in Lansing had previously overruled a voter referendum repealing the statute.
The “Emergency Financial Manager Reform Act” would authorize the U.S. Attorney General to withhold a small portion of law enforcement funds from the state if the EM fails to adequately protect against discrimination in voting, harm to public health, conflicts of interest and mismanagement, or unilaterally denying collective bargaining rights. Adoption of these incentives would allow the state the ability to assist financially troubled local governments without jeopardizing our citizens’ safety or constitutional rights.
We cannot retroactively undo the damage already done in Flint or Detroit’s schools, but we can help make sure the unaccountable emergency managers are not permitted to inflict further harm on our citizens.
U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr. represents the 13th Congressional District of Michigan.