Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder on Wednesday proposed spending hundreds of millions more dollars to address Flint's water crisis and to update infrastructure, including lead water pipes, in the city and across the state.
The $195 million for Flint and $165 million for statewide infrastructure needs were detailed in the Republican governor's annual $54.9 billion budget presentation to the GOP-led Legislature. Snyder, who has apologized for his administration's role in the disaster and an inadequate initial response, said $25 million of the funding designated for Flint could help replace an unspecified number of old lead lines running from city streets to houses.
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.
"Clean drinking water is a human necessity," Snyder told members of legislative budget committees, as protesters rallied against him outside the Capitol hearing room.
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.
"My focus and effort is on problem solving," Snyder said. "The issue now is we have citizens in need. Let's address those issues, let's take care of it."
Democrats 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 spokesman Dave Murray 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 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 — likely will overshadow 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 in his five years in office, 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, which could replace high-risk lead and copper water service lines around the state, assess infrastructure needs and provide incentives for upgrades so they are done in conjunction with repairing roads.
The governor said the fund is a first step toward addressing other infrastructure issues months after the approval of a transportation-spending plan. Higher fuel taxes and vehicles registration fees will begin in 2017, boosting dedicated revenue by more than $500 million in the fiscal year that will start in October.
Lawmakers from both parties have resisted Snyder's plan to shift $70 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 has said the city must have a decent school district to continue its resurgence after emerging from the largest public bankruptcy in U.S. history.