LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Only a year ago, Rick Snyder began his second term as Michigan governor promoting the same achievements that had propelled him to victory in 2014: The state was at last in the midst of an economic comeback, and Detroit had emerged from bankruptcy.
With the water crisis gripping Flint now threatening to overshadow nearly everything else he has accomplished, the Republican governor again pledged a fix during his annual State of the State speech Tuesday night.
“We are praying for you, we are working hard for you and we are absolutely committed to taking the right steps to effectively solve this crisis,” he said. “To you, the people of Flint, I say tonight as I have before: I am sorry, and I will fix it.”
Snyder committed $28 million more in the short term to dealing with the lead contamination that has left Flint residents unable to drink unfiltered tap water. He announced the deployment of roughly 130 more National Guard members to the city and promised to quickly release his emails regarding the crisis that has engulfed his administration with criticism from across the country.
He also revealed his appeal of President Barack Obama’s denial of a federal disaster declaration for the area, and his aides pledged that, by the end of the week, officials would visit every household in Flint to ensure they have water filters.
Snyder devoted much of his 49-minute evening address to the GOP-led Legislature to the disaster as hundreds of protesters demonstrated outside the Capitol. Many of his other priorities were shelved from the speech due to the crisis, though he did address the mounting financial problems in Detroit’s state-overseen school district. Snyder, whose office is exempt from public-records requests, plans to release his 2014 and 2015 emails on Wednesday.
Below, watch the portion of the governor’s address dealing with the Flint water crisis. App users can click here to watch the video.
He outlined a timeline of the “catastrophe” dating to 2013, and blamed it on failures at the federal, state and local level, but also said: “I let you down. You deserve better. You deserve accountability. You deserve to know the buck stops here with me.”
The images of an impoverished city where no one dares to drink the water have put Snyder on the defensive and forced him to step up his efforts to help. The governor, who previously apologized for regulatory failures and for an underwhelming initial response, has rejected calls for his resignation and said he received incorrect information from two state agencies.
In recent weeks, he declared a state of emergency, pledged another round of unspecified state funding, activated the National Guard to help distribute lead tests, filters and bottled water, and successfully sought $5 million in federal assistance. But to many people, those steps took way too long.
The new round of funding announced Tuesday, which requires approval from the GOP-led Legislature, is intended as another short-term step while Snyder works to get a better handle on the long-range costs. He plans to make a bigger request in his February budget proposal.
The $28 million would pay for more filters, bottled water, school nurses, intervention specialists, testing and monitoring. It also would replace plumbing fixtures in schools with lead problems and could help Flint with unpaid water bills.
The crisis began when Flint, about an hour’s drive from Detroit, switched its water source in 2014 to save money while under state financial management. Michigan’s top environmental regulator resigned over the failure to ensure that the Flint River water was properly treated to keep lead from pipes from leaching into the water.
>>Inside woodtv.com: Flint residents say Snyder ‘doesn’t care’
Exposure to lead can cause behavior problems and learning disabilities in children and kidney ailments in adults. Elevated blood-lead levels were found in two city zip codes.
The fiasco bruised Snyder, a former venture capitalist and computer executive who took office in 2011 billing himself as a practical decision-maker and a “tough nerd.” When he sought the state’s top job, he touted his experience as a turnaround artist committed to making government work better for people.
Democrats have opposed many of Snyder’s most sweeping laws, including a new emergency manager measure under which his administration has made budget decisions for struggling cities and school districts. They say what happened in Flint is an indictment of the GOP’s promise to run government like a business.
“The state of our state is not strong when residents are being poisoned by their tap water,” House Minority Leader Tim Greimel said.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who attended the address, said Snyder’s contrition “does not mitigate the crime that has been committed.”
The U.S. Justice Department is helping the Environmental Protection Agency investigate, and the state attorney general has opened his own probe, which could focus on whether environmental laws were broken or if there was official misconduct.
Watch the governor’s full address below. App users can click here to watch the full address.
Also Tuesday, Snyder highlighted successes in Detroit post-bankruptcy but warned legislators that the Detroit Public Schools could begin running out of money in the spring if more than $515 million in operating debt is not wiped away with a state bailout.
“The time to act is now and avoid court intervention that could cost all of us much more and be much more detrimental,” he said.
>>Inside woodtv.com: Topics in Snyder’s State of State besides Flint
The Detroit and Flint issues prompted retired nurse Lynn Hier of the northwestern Detroit suburb of New Baltimore to rally in Lansing. She called on Snyder to fire the district’s state-appointed emergency manager, Darnell Earley, because he also was an emergency manager in Flint at the time of the water switch.
“He’s not going to be anyone that anybody trusts,” Hier said.
Actions Snyder announced regarding the Flint water crisis:
- $28 million in funding. It is the second wave of state aid to be committed since October, when $10.6 million was announced. The money will pay for filters, replacement cartridges, bottled water, more school nurses and additional intervention specialists. It also will fund lab testing, corrosion control procedures, a study of water system infrastructure, potentially help Flint deal with unpaid water bills, case management of people with elevated lead-blood levels, assessment of potential linkages to other diseases, crisis counseling and mental health services, and the replacement of plumbing fixtures in schools, child care centers, nursing homes and medical facilities.
- The release Wednesday of his emails involving Flint’s water emergency. The governor and his office are exempt from public-records requests under Michigan law, but given his administration’s regulatory failures, he decided to bow to pressure to disclose more information about what he knew and when.
- The deployment of more Michigan National Guard members to the city, increasing the number from more than 70 to about 200.
- Plans to reach every Flint household as soon as possible to check if it has a water filter.
- An appeal of President Barack Obama’s denial of his request for a federal disaster declaration. On Saturday, Obama signed an emergency declaration but denied Snyder’s request for a disaster declaration based on the legal requirement that such relief is intended for natural events, fires, floods or explosions.
POLITICAL FALLOUT OF WATER CRISIS
Moments before the governor walked into what surely had to be one of the more uncomfortable situations of his time in office, he spoke with 24 Hour News 8 Political Reporter Rick Albin about how the situation deviated from his motto, “relentless positive action.”
“This is a very humbling experience in terms of people working for me didn’t do all the things you wish, and you never want to see that happen,” Snyder said. “So the real case is you don’t quit over something like this. You pick yourself up and go say let’s solve the problem. So in some respects, there is a positive nature to this, but this is a very negative situation and I feel for the people that were harmed and I’m going to work really hard, give my all to fixing the issues in Flint.”
>>Inside woodtv.com: How you can help Flint residents
The responses to the governor’s address could have been written before it was given, falling predictably along the party line.
“I thought he did a great job,” said Rep. Holly Hughes, R-Montague. “He does accept responsibility, we accept a responsibility. We’re in this together. It’s not a Republican-Democrat thing. It’s about the kids, and we’re going to take care of it.”
Rep. Jon Hoadley, D-Kalamazoo, expressed his party’s perspective:
“I still heard the governor not willing to take full responsibility. We saw it when he tried to start shifting the blame to the folks in Flint, saying that they chose to get water from the Flint River when the reality is that that’s not true,” Hoadley said. “With that said, I did appreciate that he said the buck needs to stop with him. So the question we need answered now is: What did he know and when did he know it?”
The speech obviously did not appease Snyder’s critics and it doesn’t do much immediately for the people of Flint. Still, his request for money seems to be receiving favorable reviews by some Republicans and Democrats, so it is possible his plan may get going in a relatively short period of time. The measure could be approved as early as next week.
But it could take much longer for the political fallout to be cleaned up.