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Lansing hearings over Flint water crisis take backseat to dramatic Congressional hearings in D.C.

There were political fireworks at two hearings in Washington D.C.last week that overshadowed the almost simultaneous beginning of hearings by a state legislative committee on the Flint water crisis.

The hearings at the state Capitol were, as a practical matter, forced on reluctant legislative Republicans by the fact that Washington lawmakers appeared to be doing more and showing more interest in Flint than Lansing lawmakers.

GOP state legislators didn’t want to create a forum for whipping Republicans and Governor Snyder over the Flint failures and the emergency manager law that led to the disaster. But, eventually, GOP leaders recognized they had no choice in the matter.

During the Congressional hearings in D.C., Snyder acknowledged that the emergency manager law - his emergency manager law - failed in Flint.

New Jersey Congresswoman Bonnie Watson-Coleman asked the governor “Did that emergency management system fail under your leadership in this instance?”

“In this instance, it would be much to the case that I have, you wish they would have asked more questions. You wish…,” the governor responded.

“Is that a yes or a no?” asked Congresswoman Watson-Coleman.

“In this particular case, with respect to the water issue, that would be a fair conclusion,” the governor answered.

Using a very narrow answer by responding with “in this instance” and “with respect to the water,” the governor governor was almost trying to defend the law. And, unmentioned, but hanging out there are all the municipal governments that have exited emergency management, not to mention the apparently successful Detroit bankruptcy. Those are now overshadowed by the Flint debacle.

It’s worth recalling the history of the law: beefing up emergency manager powers when the state takes over a local government was one of the early acts of Rick Snyder in this new era of Republican majority in Lansing.

Opponents, including public employee unions, got a referendum on the ballot and the law was reversed. Snyder and his fellow Republicans responded by tweaking their original law, adopting a new version and putting an appropriation in it to make it referendum-proof.

Even now, Governor Snyder says the law may have failed in Flint, but he’s not looking for any changes to it.

Meantime, Democrats have sponsored bills in the state House and the Senate to repeal the emergency manager law. It’s doubtful the bills will ever get a hearing, but look for the Dems to dust them off from time to time as a tool to call attention to the failure in Flint.

Look for Republicans, meanwhile, to use all the tools of the majority to try and control their Flint hearings and avoid the grenade roll that was the DC hearings. Likely all questions will submitted in advance; maybe time limits on questions. (Which didn’t stop the congressional hearings from becoming a beat down -- by Republicans on the EPA and by Democrats on Governor Snyder.)

Now, we expect more House Oversight hearings in D.C., and Michigan Congressman Fred Upton also plans to hold a hearing or two before his House Energy and Commerce Committee.

In Lansing, look for Republicans to take aim at the Michigan Department of Environment Quality bureaucracy that Governor Snyder blames for missing the boat; look for Democrats to take aim at Governor Snyder and emergency managers.

Which begs the question: Will Rick Snyder appear before the legislative committee in Lansing the same way he appeared - voluntarily he says - in D.C.?

And since he did appear before the congressional committee -- says he asked for the chance to testify -- does he have to show his face in front of the legislative committee? Or was his appearance in D.C. a one-and-done? 

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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