Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder on Wednesday proposed spending hundreds of millions more dollars to address Flint's water crisis from lead contamination and to update pipes there and across the state — a plan that lawmakers from both parties generally welcomed as moving in the right direction with the proper priorities.
Snyder's plan would direct $195 million more toward the Flint emergency and $165 million for statewide infrastructure needs, at least a portion of which could replace lead and copper water lines elsewhere. He said $25 million of the Flint funding would replace 5,000 known old lead lines running from city streets to houses, calling it a "seed investment" until the state has a better handle on just how many of the pipes there are.
The Republican governor cited aging infrastructure as a pressing priority, along with restructuring the troubled Detroit school district and addressing skyrocketing specialty medicine costs.
"These areas merit special attention," Snyder said, in a departure from his typically rosier focus on traditional budget spending. "These are issues that we need to take head-on, in a positive, constructive way, with solutions."
Snyder has apologized for his administration's role in the disastrous lead contamination of Flint's water supply but was met with a few dozen protesters who could be heard chanting throughout his nearly hourlong presentation to GOP-controlled legislative budget committees.
His proposal Wednesday drew mostly positive reaction from lawmakers who will consider the legislation in the coming months and likely approve a plan in early June.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Al Pscholka, a Stevensville Republican, said he was happy to see a more intermediate- to long-term plan for Flint beyond the "stopgap" measures previously approved unanimously by the GOP-controlled Legislature.
The governor and legislators have already directed more than $37 million toward the disaster, including funds for bottled water, filters, testing, health care and other services.
Flint is under a state of emergency until government authorities and independent experts declare the water safe to drink again without filters, which officials have said could happen in the spring. The additional money for Flint also includes $30 million to help residents with two years of water bills, dating to when the water source was switched to the Flint River in 2014 and improperly treated without anti-corrosion chemicals.
Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, a Flint Democrat, said Snyder's priorities for Flint "seem to match the areas we have been stressing for some time — health, education and infrastructure." The challenge now, he said, "is to make sure that the state delivers."
Democrats still say Snyder's plan is short of what is needed to fully reimburse the water portion of people's water/sewer bills, and city officials want more to replace old pipes. Snyder said his recommended amount for pipe replacement is a starting point and could grow once a full analysis is done and all the underground service lines are found in the city of nearly 100,000 people.
Flint's water troubles, concerns about other aging water infrastructure and the Detroit school's district dire financial outlook — it needs a $720 million infusion of cash over a decade to avoid bankruptcy, according to Snyder aides — overshadowed a one-time budget surplus and more nuts-and-bolts budget details this year, such as funding for education, municipalities and workforce development.
Snyder, a former accountant who has been keen to fatten the state's savings account, called for shifting $165 million he had planned for the rainy day fund to a new Michigan Infrastructure Fund. A commission he announced in his recent State of the State address would recommend how to prioritize the money.
When a legislator asked about the potential for more federal aid for Flint — Congress is debating the issue — Snyder said: "We could use more help from Washington" but later declined to specify exactly how much.
In Washington, D.C., Flint Mayor Karen Weaver asked President Barack Obama to visit Flint. She spoke after an informational hearing Wednesday on Flint led by Democratic lawmakers.
Lawmakers from both parties have resisted Snyder's plan to shift $72 million a year from the school aid fund to pay down Detroit Public Schools' operating debt, estimated at $1,100 per student, and to launch a new district with better-performing schools. They do not want to affect funding for other districts.
So the governor proposed instead using a portion of Michigan's tobacco settlement, the annual payment the state receives from cigarette manufacturers under a 1998 agreement.
The district, which has been under state emergency financial management for almost seven years, is burdened by debt, falling enrollment, inadequate buildings and low morale among teachers whose recent "sickout" absences have closed schools. Snyder said the city must have a decent school district to continue its recovery after emerging from the largest public bankruptcy in U.S. history.
Snyder also proposed spending $135 million a year to provide just two specialty drugs — for Hepatitis C and cystic fibrosis — to several thousand people on Medicaid or in prison.
"This is a large national problem. It's an opportunity to help people, and we want to help people," he said. "But we need to find the most cost-efficient ways to do that."