LANSING, Mich. (AP) — More than a year after Flint’s man-made water crisis shook its residents and embroiled Gov. Rick Snyder and his administration in scrutiny, he hopes that experts may soon provide clarity on when the tap water will be safe to drink without a filter.
Snyder pointed to a January “data summit” in Chicago where the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and independent experts such as Virginia Tech profess Marc Edwards will assess the water. He said the most recent round of state testing showed the 90th percentile of lead concentrations in Flint was 8 parts per billion below the “action level” of 15 ppb.
“I don’t want to say it’s OK yet because we want the EPA, DEQ, Marc Edwards and the experts to all meet and have a discussion. But I’m actually looking forward to that meeting,” Snyder told The Associated Press on Wednesday in a wide-ranging interview in which he discussed what was a difficult 2016 and his goals for 2017.
In April, it will have been three years since Flint’s water source was switched while the city was under state management, sparking a raft of safety problems including lead contamination. Many residents continue to drink bottled water, though the tap water has been declared safe with a faucet filter.
“We all hope that the sooner we get resolution on these things the better,” Snyder said, citing the “awful things” that residents have gone through. “But you want to make sure you’re putting safety and public health first on the list of priorities.”
He said healing Flint is a long-term effort, and his administration is focused not only on the water system but adding jobs, expanding health coverage and opening more publicly funded preschool slots for disadvantaged kids.
The Republican governor said 2016 was a “very strong” year economically for the state, where per-capita personal income grew at a rate surpassed by only three other states. He signed into law a bailout and restructuring of Detroit’s debt-ridden school district and a state budget that expanded dental coverage to 131,000 low-income 13- to 21-year-olds in the largest counties, the final step toward implementing the Healthy Kids Dental program statewide.
Snyder in 2017 plans to continue emphasizing vocational and technical schooling and the need for more skilled tradesmen. He said when he campaigned before winning the governorship in 2010, he often was asked about a lack of jobs.
“Now the question I get most frequently from people is, ‘Where do I get the training to take the jobs?'”
Other priorities in his seventh year in office will include continuing to position auto-centric Michigan for autonomous vehicle development and to help rural communities with economic development.
Lawmakers on Thursday sent Snyder a rewrite of energy laws — a significant focus for him — but his calls for criminal justice changes and his backing of tax incentives for business expansion projects died at the end of the GOP-led Legislature’s two-year term.
Flint-related policy reforms gained little traction either, though Snyder is expected next year to put his previous call for the nation’s toughest lead-testing rules into the form of legislation.
He also wants to follow up on a newly released report from an infrastructure commission he formed. It identified the need for a whopping $4 billion more annually to upgrade roads, water systems and other key infrastructure such as natural gas pipelines and broadband internet.
It took Snyder years to persuade legislators to enact a 2015 road-spending plan with higher fuel taxes and vehicle registration fees that will take effect in January.
For now, he is most interested in shorter-term recommendations like trying pilot projects implementing a statewide asset management system — through which a council could better coordinate infrastructure projects and save money.
“If we don’t address it over a 30- to 50-year horizon, we got a serious problem,” Snyder said.
The road-funding laws include a dedicated annual shift of money from the general fund — Michigan’s second-largest account behind education — to roads starting in the 2018-19 fiscal year. The fund also will be squeezed due to Medicaid expansion costs and recession-era tax credits for the Detroit Three automakers and other companies.
Snyder did not indicate if those budget pressures were why he recently circulated a proposal that would have tapped the school aid fund to also pay income tax refunds that today only come from the general fund. He said such a move is “common sense” because income taxes go to both funds. It drew criticism as a significant cut to education.
“I’m not going to make it a priority right out of the gate coming into next year,” said Snyder, who suggested it could “theoretically” be part of a future budget process. “It was in ways a good issue to raise so it’s on people’s radar, to say, ‘Guys, we need to be thinking about this.’ … At some point, it’s a math thing.”