WASHINGTON – Jeb Bush explained Sunday why he still thinks Rick Snyder has been “a great governor for Michigan” even after the mass lead poisoning because of tainted tap water in Flint.
The disgrace over Flint’s water, the Republican presidential prospect told ABC’s “This Week,” “is related to the fact that we’ve created this complex, no-responsibility regulatory system, where the federal government, the state government, a regional government, local and county governments are all pointing fingers at one another.”
Bush was attempting to muddy the proverbial water by portraying the Flint debacle as a failure of government at all levels. Snyder attempted the same diffusion of responsibility last week, saying that “government failed you – federal, state and local leaders – by breaking the trust you placed in us.”
But the Flint disaster, three years in the making, is not a failure of government generally. It’s the failure of a specific governing philosophy: Snyder’s belief that government works better if run more like a business.
No doubt, the federal Environmental Protection Agency deserves blame for failing to sound warnings more loudly and publicly once it learned last year that high lead levels in Flint were poisoning children.
But the EPA had no role in the decisions that caused the problem, nor was it supposed to. That was entirely the responsibility of Snyder’s administration and his appointees.
The governor, former head of Gateway computers, was first elected as part of the tea party wave of 2010 with a plan to use his tech industry skills to run Michigan. He spoke of “outcomes” and “deliverables,” and sought to “reinvent” the state to make it business-friendly.
A centerpiece of Snyder’s agenda, and one of his first actions, was a new law that gave the state dramatic powers to take over failing municipalities and school boards by appointing emergency managers with unchecked authority. Michigan voters killed that law in a November 2012 referendum, but a month later Snyder got the Legislature, in a lame-duck session, to enact a law very similar to the one voters had rejected. This time, legislators attached it to a spending bill so it couldn’t be undone by referendum.
The unelected viceroys had mandates to improve municipal finances but little incentive to weigh other considerations.
In Flint, one such emergency manager, Edward Kurtz, abandoned the city’s decades-long reliance on Detroit as its source of clean tap water in 2013, under the theory that it could reduce Flint’s high water bills by tapping into a new pipeline that was still under construction.
Kurtz’s successor as Flint’s emergency manager, Darnell Earley (now emergency manager of Detroit’s schools), made the fateful decision to use treated water from the Flint River as the city’s water supply starting in 2014 while the pipeline was being completed – even though Detroit was willing to continue providing high-quality water under a short-term contract. This was supposed to save Flint $5 million.
And Earley’s successor as Flint emergency manager, Jerry Ambrose, overruled a city council vote in March 2015 to return to Detroit water. Ambrose called the council’s request “incomprehensible” and a waste of $12 million – even though there had already been chemical and bacterial problems with the river water, the quality had violated the Safe Drinking Water Act and the General Motors plant in Flint had stopped using the water because it was rusting car parts.
“You cannot separate what happened in Flint from the state’s extreme emergency-management law,” said Curt Guyette, who, working for the ACLU of Michigan, uncovered much of the scandal in Flint. “The bottom line is making sure the banks and bond holders get paid at all costs, even if the kids are poisoned with foul river water.”
The emergency-manager law, Guyette argued, “is about the taking away of democracy and the imposition of austerity-fueled autocracy on cities that are poor and majority African-American.”
Snyder’s blaming of local authorities is disingenuous: Because of the emergency-management law, municipal officials can’t do anything without the blessing of Snyder’s viceroys.
As for federal officials, the EPA warned Michigan as early as February 2015 that contaminants were leaching into the water system in Flint. The EPA didn’t press publicly or aggressively to fix the problem, a failure that led to the regional administrator’s resignation last week. That foot-dragging postponed action by a few months – an inexcusable delay, to be sure – but the feds had no say in the decisions that caused the problem.
Snyder undertook an arrogant public-policy experiment, underpinned by the ideological assumption that the “experience set” of corporate-style managers was superior to the checks and balances of democracy. This is why Flint happened.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.