Don’t stick taxpayers with lawyer bills

Jim Ananich

For a state that’s scrounging for money to fix roads, improve education and help a poisoned city recover, the last thing we should be doing is spending taxpayer dollars on lawyers for officials who mess up. But that’s exactly what’s happening.

The message couldn’t be clearer: If government officials screw up, the people of Michigan are stuck with the bill.

Last week, the attorney general announced that his Flint water investigation could cost more than $5 million dollars, triple what he’d initially planned to spend. What’s more, Gov. Snyder’s $6,500 per day lawyers had to be publicly shamed into cooperating with the investigation.

The mistakes and misdeeds perpetrated by state-appointed emergency managers and the Snyder administration are well documented. Yet right now, the law shields emergency managers from being sued, even if they’re clearly at fault, and the state is responsible for defending them. That means you and I pay for their defense.

It’s absurd, but it’s legal.

It’s equally ridiculous that the governor hired a team of private, high-priced criminal defense attorneys on our dime instead of using his own legal defense fund. Records show that Gov. Snyder’s spent nearly $400,000 in taxpayer money on his private lawyers in February and March alone. A bigger bill is sure to come.

But that, too, is legal under current law.

It’s past time we step up and make emergency managers and the governor more accountable by ensuring they pay for their mistakes. That’s why I’m introducing legislation that would retroactively strip immunity from emergency managers and make them pay for the legal defense they need. It would also prohibit the governor from using taxpayer dollars to hire private lawyers.

This doesn’t have to be a partisan issue. All members of the Legislature should support this legislation and approve it soon. These bills offer a commonsense approach to guaranteeing that taxpayer money is used appropriately when government officials make mistakes.

I can’t help but imagine how many school nurses, home visits or healthy meals we could have provided to Flint families instead of paying for ineffective emergency managers and picking up the tab for the governor’s legal fees. The people of Flint are still struggling to access clean, safe drinking water. We can only use filtered or bottled water, and the same lead pipes that contributed to our poisoning are still in use. How many of those pipes could we replace for $5 million?

As lawmakers, it’s our responsibility to ensure your money is helping the people of Michigan. Preventing state officials from effectively stealing taxpayer dollars to save their own skins is the least we can do.

Sen. Jim Ananich lives in Flint and serves as the Senate Democratic Leader.