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Now what in Flint?

Jan 20, 2016

You may think this bizarre, but towards the end of Gov. Rick Snyder’s emotional State of the State speech. what popped into my mind was a scene from the epic movie Braveheart.

William Wallace, the medieval Scottish hero, has just eloquently rallied his men to take on a vastly superior British army.

“Fine speech,” one of his lieutenants said. “Now what?”

The governor’s future, as well as that of Flint, will be determined by the “now what,” of this crisis. In the movie, the hero tells his men “Just be yourselves.”

Ironically, that’s just what we hope doesn’t happen here.

Left to their own inclinations, the majority in the Legislature wouldn’t do a thing for Flint, a mostly poor and Democratic enclave. House Appropriations Committee Chair Al Pscholka has been less able to conceal his real feelings than most, saying even last night that he had no intention of giving Flint “a blank check.” But even he seems to realize where public sentiment stands, and that they better not try to stop the governor’s $28 million aid package.

The governor did in fact make a good, if not great speech. He seemed to be taking the blame, though what he really hinted is that he was let down by his underlings.

What he hasn’t yet explained is where he was between Oct. 7, when he reluctantly agreed to reconnect Flint to Detroit water, and Dec. 29, when the task force he appointed produced a scathing report. Only then did he finally fire the head of the Department of Environmental Quality and his spokesman.

In between, the governor appeared to forget about Flint. Now, we have a twofold crisis that is going to continue indefinitely. One, of course, is the health issue in Flint. We don’t know how bad things are in terms of long-term brain damage, though the local hero in all of this, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, thinks it is going to be worse than most people suspect.

We have become a people of short attention spans, and what we don’t know is how long the state will go on caring about Flint, and its damaged children. Beyond that, while people are calling this the Hurricane Katrina of the Snyder administration, this may more resemble Watergate. People, not all of them partisan Democrats, want to know what the governor knew and when he knew it.

My guess is that the emails he releases won’t satisfy them. Attorney General Bill Schuette has finally launched an investigation and is anxious to separate himself from this Republican governor.

This, too, will not end anytime soon.

Finally, when it comes to complex issues, neither we nor our elected representatives are very good at multitasking. The governor did talk about other things last night, notably the Detroit Public Schools, which are drowning in debt and careening into bankruptcy.

Snyder has a plan. But as one Detroit columnist noted, last night it sounded to most people like so much blah, blah. They weren’t listening.

All anybody wanted to hear about was Flint. Getting the Legislature to do the right thing for Detroit schools would take a lot of political capital, and this governor is now politically bankrupt. Michigan has plenty of other problems, too.

Expect a long and difficult few years.

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.