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Aid For Flint: Utah Senator says Flint doesn’t need aid, blocks lead bill
- Updated: March 7, 2016
Federal aid is not needed in Flint, Michigan, where lead-contaminated pipes have resulted in an ongoing public health emergency, a Republican senator said Friday.
A Republican U.S. senator from Utah is holding up a federal funding package worth more than $100 million which could help address the issue of high lead levels found in Flint’s water, saying in a statement on Friday that no federal aid is needed at this time.
U.S. Sen. Mike Lee’s statement, which indicated his belief that the measure proposed by U.S. Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters, both D-Mich., represented a “federalizing” of water infrastructure, objected to the bill, arguing the state has not directly asked Congress for any emergency spending and has its own surplus to spend if it needs money.
“Michigan has an enormous budget surplus this year and a large rainy-day fund,” Lee said. “Relief and repair efforts are already in the works. The people and policymakers of Michigan right now have all the government resources they need to fix the problem. … The only thing Congress is contributing to the Flint recovery is political grandstanding.”
Stabenow, who worked with Peters for weeks to secure a group of Republican and Democratic cosponsors for the legislation, expressed surprise that Lee has placed a hold on the measure, which effectively keeps the Senate from voting on it, even though it is fully paid for.
“This bill doesn’t increase federal spending by one penny,” said Stabenow, adding that Lee is holding up legislation which could help communities across the country, including those in Utah, and should at least let it come to a vote. Stabenow and Peters say federal funding is needed to replace aging pipes in Flint and other parts of the infrastructure to ensure public safety and restore confidence in the water system in the Michigan city.
Late last month, U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla, the chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, unveiled the legislation along with Stabenow, Peters and others. It would authorize the federal Drinking Water State Revolving Fund to make up to $100 million in grants between now and October 2017 “to any state that receives an emergency declaration … to a public health threat from lead or other contaminants in a public drinking water system.”
Michigan, on Flint and Genesee County’s behalf, is the only state with such a declaration. But the legislation clearly would allow for funding to be spent on water infrastructure elsewhere. The measure also authorizes $70 million in subsidies which could be used to back more than $700 million in low-interest financing for water infrastructure projects through a newly created fund — some of which could be used in Flint — but which is intended to spark repairs and replacement of aging water systems across the U.S.
The bill also authorizes $50 million for public health — though that funding is not specific to Flint — including $17.5 million to monitor the health effects of lead contamination in municipal water, along with allowing Michigan to use other funding to repay earlier federal loans taken out by Flint for work on its water system.
Peters said he was “disappointed Senator Lee would hold up a vote on this critical legislation that is fully paid for when the people of Flint still do not have access to clean, safe water.”
“What’s happening in Flint is a long-term, far-reaching crisis,” he said.
Lee, however, saw it as more of a federal power grab to authorize spending across the U.S.
“What’s really happening here is that Washington politicians are using the crisis in Flint as an excuse to funnel taxpayer money to their own home states, and trying to sneak it through the Senate without proper debate and amendment,” he said. “I respectfully object.”
While Lee said, however, that Gov. Rick Snyder hadn’t asked Congress to authorize emergency funds, that misses some of the nuances of the situation in Flint, where a lack of corrosion-control treatment when the city switched to the Flint River in April 2014 allowed lead to leach from aging water pipes.
Snyder initially requested that President Barack Obama declare a major disaster in Flint and provide more than $700 million for infrastructure repairs to pipes and the water system. But Obama turned down that request because federal law only allows for such declarations in the cases of natural disasters, fires or explosions. Obama declared an emergency, but that typically results in far less federal aid.
Snyder appealed, but it was denied.
“What is happening to the people of Flint, Michigan is a man-made disaster,” Lee said. “Congress has special mechanisms for emergency spending when it is needed. But to date Michigan’s governor has not asked us for any, nor have Michigan’s senators proposed any. Contrary to media reports, there is no federal ‘aid package’ for Flint even being considered.”