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Snyder: Putting balance sheets ahead of human needs

Jack Lessenberry

Late Friday afternoon I talked at length with Flint Congressman Dan Kildee, who had been urging the governor for months to seek federal aid for the water crisis.

Governor Rick Snyder finally asked the president to declare a federal emergency, which he swiftly did. Kildee, who first urged him to seek Washington’s help back in September, could have been crowing “I told you so.” But he wasn’t. Instead, he told me this was a direct result of a culture which puts balance sheets ahead of human needs.

“Where the governor absolutely failed is that he brought to state government a corporate philosophy that is very bottom-line focused,” he told me, adding “you have to put people ahead of dollars and cents.”  The congressman believes that this also stems partly from our failure as a society to realize that we have to take better care of our older industrial cities.

What he left out was that decisions like this are also a false economy. Forget for a moment the human devastation caused by drinking water so contaminated with lead that some of it met the Environmental Protection Agency’s definition of toxic waste. The governor’s emergency manager switched from clean Detroit water to the Flint River to save a few million dollars. The Department of Environmental Quality then saved maybe a hundred or so bucks a day by not adding anti-corrosive solution to the water – even after a General Motors plant stopped using Flint River water because it was so corrosive it was destroying engine parts.

It will cost the state far, far more money because of this foolish “cost-saving” decision. How much, we won’t know till we see how extensive the effects of lead have been on young brains. In fact, we may never know.

This is probably the end of Rick Snyder’s political career; his next three years in office are likely to be a footnote to the mess in Flint. Barely a year ago, people were making noises about his possibly running for president. Later, there was a lot of talk of him as a vice presidential nominee, or more likely, for a position like Secretary of Commerce.

You can forget about that now. Every office holder makes mistakes. Even William Milliken, who many think was the best governor in our lifetimes, was somewhat slow to react to the PBB-poisoned cattle feed crisis 40 years ago.       

But what concerns me about Governor Snyder is that he seems to have a hard time admitting error or acting swiftly and decisively to deal with mistakes.

I can’t imagine John Engler letting the Aramark prison food embarrassment go on as long as it did. Even worse, after finally acknowledging a problem and then reconnecting Flint to Detroit’s water in October, Snyder then seemed to put his head in the sand. Not until his own task force delivered a report devastating to his administration did he finally act.

The ultimate irony of all this is contained in the governor’s favorite phrase: Relentless positive action. For months, he not only wasn’t relentless, he took almost no action.

And what was done in his name was anything but positive. We will be paying the price in many ways for many years to come.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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