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How Flint's water crisis pushed road funding plan ahead

Jack Lessenberry

I heard from several puzzled people yesterday, after Governor Rick Snyder proclaimed he would sign the road fund package the legislature narrowly passed on election night.

“I don’t get it,” one man said. “I thought the governor said that cutting the general fund by $600 million a year was too much.” Well, yes, he did say that.

A similar road funding approach fell apart barely two months ago, because the governor said he couldn’t support cuts that deep. Snyder’s press secretary, Sara Wurfel, said he was worried about “jeopardizing the state’s financial stability and comeback.”

Well, that was true in September, but evidently not in November. The governor is now heartily embracing a proposal that may be even worse than the one he rejected before. On top of cutting the general fund, it doesn’t even begin to cough up any real money for the roads for years. 

What happened to change his mind? Well, don’t bother with policy analysis. The answer, as Inside Michigan Politics publisher Susan Demas posted on Facebook, is that “he’s a politician who really needs a win.” What did happen between then and now was the Flint drinking water disaster. Snyder’s Department of Environmental Quality dismissed media questions about lead in the drinking water, until further investigative reporting proved they were true.

This was hugely embarrassing. The state had to cough up millions; the mayor of Flint was defeated in Tuesday’s election, and perhaps coincidentally, the governor’s press secretary announced yesterday that she is leaving the administration. It will be interesting to see what now happens to her husband, who had an equivalent job at the DEQ, and who told reporters this summer Flint’s drinking water was just fine.

But there’s another reason the governor signed what really is a terrible road bill. He realized he would never get anything better out of the ideological fanatics who dominate the legislature. By the way, that’s not to say Democrats are heroes here. 

Mark Schauer, their nominee for governor last year, didn’t have the guts to propose any plan to fix the roads, and his legislative allies didn’t offer anything that made much sense. While all this was going on, I was contacted by Phil Leech, a semi-retired stockbroker and financial services guy who lives in Ottawa County.

Leech told me “politically, I believe compromise is not a dirty word.” He said he wished politicians would “stop fighting and start fixing.” He gets that hyper-partisanship is the problem, and knows that unless we find a way to end gerrymandering, we’ll get more of the same.

He knows the League of Women Voters is holding a series of seminars to discuss redistricting, but was frustrated that they don’t seem willing to lead a ballot drive to change the system. So, he’s rallied a group of knowledgeable and connected people, and they are holding a conference call today to decide next steps.  That has to include finding a way to fight the special interests and the legislature, and putting an amendment on the ballot.

By the way, a bipartisan coalition did just that in Ohio this year, and this week, 71% of the voters approved of it. So, it can be done. That is, if we care enough to take back our state.  

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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