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With State of the State address approaching, Flint water crisis could set Snyder agenda in 2016

The state Legislature returns to the Capitol this week and Governor Rick Snyder will kick off the political year in Lansing with his State of the State address next week.

State of the State

As the Snyder administration continues to play catch-up on the Flint water crisis, it’s almost certain that the Governor will have no choice but to bring up the situation in Flint during his annual State of the State address on January 19th.

In recent days, the governor has declared a state of emergency in the city, opened the state’s emergency operations center and met with the new mayor of Flint.

But, criticism of Snyder’s handling of the problem has gone national as he continues to try and reassure people that he and his administration are aware of the magnitude of what’s happened and that he’s marshaling resources to deal with what he calls, “this unfortunate situation which I do apologize for, with respect to our role in this issue.”

Aging infrastructure

Governor Snyder and his administration have struggled to find the right words and the right tone after the disastrous early response of denying there was a problem until the fact that children were being harmed became beyond dispute.

As a result, we’re pretty confident that the administration will ask the GOP-led state Legislature to pony up more money to deal with the effects of lead contamination in Flint’s water.

And, as in any crisis, there are also opportunities: water infrastructure, aging pipes and sewers are now (or very soon will be) on the agenda.  

Flint alone has 500 miles of iron pipe that’s susceptible to corrosion. And it’s not only Flint dealing with aging water infrastructure.

Water strategy

The reality of the state’s aging infrastructure was recently acknowledged by Harvey Hollins, Snyder’s director of urban initiatives, who is also coordinating the state’s response to the Flint crisis.

“This is the next infrastructure challenge for the state of Michigan. The governor is very aware of that.”

Hollins is absolutely correct. As we reported on It’s Just Politics back in October, the Governor did want to focus on water issues:

“This was supposed to be right about the time that Governor Snyder envisioned the state and the Legislature engaging on some big picture thinking on water. The Governor rolled out his administration's draft water strategy in June. It included things like dealing with invasive species and water tourism, but infrastructure and a guarantee of clean drinking water for all Michiganders was also a very big part of it.”

But, like so many other things, a water infrastructure strategy became subsumed last year by the endless debate on road funding.

Plans for replacing water infrastructure were pushed back and, in what’s turned out to be bitter, bitter irony, the Flint controversy has created a sense of urgency on the issue.

Lawmakers hold the purse strings

The administration is still developing its plans on exactly what it wants to do, how much it will cost, and how to pay for it.

We have certainly seen how this Legislature responds when it comes to coming up with new money for expensive initiatives (a la the aforementioned money for roads). And, any monetary ask for Flint will be coming shortly after the Governor called for some $715 million dollars for the financially struggling Detroit Public Schools.

Election 2016

Also, we can’t forget that this is an election year. There are 110 races for state House seats and, of course, a presidential election.

With the political implications clear and present, an election year can be a very difficult time to get big, controversial things done.

But, it can also be dangerous, politically dangerous, to allow big problems to fester. The magnitude of what’s going on in Flint, and the possibility of another water disaster somewhere else, might just mean that it’s too big not to handle in 2016.

Zoe Clark and Rick Pluta discuss Gov. Snyder’s agenda for 2016 on “Stateside with Cynthia Canty”

Zoe Clark is Michigan Public's Political Director. In this role, Clark guides coverage of the state Capitol, elections, and policy debates.
Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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