Only a year ago, Rick Snyder began his second term as Michigan governor, promoting the same achievements that had propelled him to victory in 2014: The state was at last in the midst of an economic comeback, and Detroit had emerged from bankruptcy.
With the water crisis gripping Flint now threatening to overshadow nearly everything else he has accomplished, the Republican governor again pledged a fix during his annual State of the State speech Tuesday night.
“We are praying for you, we are working hard for you and we are absolutely committed to taking the right steps to effectively solve this crisis,” he said. “To you, the people of Flint, I say tonight as I have before: I am sorry, and I will fix it.”
Snyder committed $28 million more in the short term to dealing with the lead contamination that has left Flint residents unable to drink unfiltered tap water. He announced the deployment of roughly 130 more National Guard members to the city and promised to quickly release his emails regarding the crisis that has engulfed his administration with criticism from across the country.
Snyder also revealed that he has appealed President Barack Obama’s denial of federal disaster declaration for the area, and Snyder’s aides pledged that, by the end of the week, officials would visit every household in Flint to ensure they have water filters.
Snyder spent much of his 49-minute evening address to the GOP-led Legislature discussing the disaster, as hundreds of protesters demonstrated outside the Capitol. Many of his other priorities were shelved from the speech due to the crisis, though he did address the mounting financial problems in Detroit’s state-overseen school district. Snyder, whose office is legally exempt from public-records requests, nonetheless plans to release his 2014 and 2015 emails on Wednesday.
He outlined a timeline of the “catastrophe” dating back to 2013, and blamed it on failures at the federal, state and local level, but also said: “I let you down. You deserve better. You deserve accountability. You deserve to know the buck stops here with me.”
The image of an impoverished city where no one dares to drink the water has put Snyder on the defensive and forced him to step up his efforts to help. The governor, who previously apologized for regulatory failures and for an underwhelming initial response, has rejected calls for his resignation and said he received incorrect information from two state agencies.
In recent weeks, he declared a state of emergency, pledged more state funding, activated about 70 National Guardsmen to help distribute lead tests, filters and bottled water, and successfully sought $5 million in federal assistance. But to many people, those steps took way too long.
The new round of funding announced Tuesday, which requires approval from the GOP-led Legislature, is intended as another band-aid measure while Snyder works to get a better handle on the long-range costs. He plans to make a bigger request in his February budget proposal.
The $28 million would pay for more filters, bottled water, school nurses, intervention specialists, testing and monitoring. It also would replace plumbing fixtures in schools with lead problems and could help Flint with unpaid water bills.
The crisis began in 2014, when Flint, about an hour’s drive from Detroit, switched its water source to save money while under state financial management. Michigan’s top environmental regulator resigned over the failure to ensure that the Flint River water was properly treated, to ensure that it was lead-free.
Exposure to lead can cause behavior problems and learning disabilities in children and kidney ailments in adults. Elevated blood-lead levels were found in two city zip codes.
This fiasco has bruised Snyder, a former venture capitalist and computer executive who took office in 2011, billing himself as a practical decision-maker. When he sought the state’s top job, he touted his experience as a turnaround artist committed to making government work better for people.
Democrats have opposed many of Snyder’s most sweeping laws, including a new emergency manager measure under which his administration has made budget decisions for struggling cities and school districts. They say what happened in Flint is an indictment of the GOP’s promise to run government like a business.
“The state of our state is not strong when residents are being poisoned by their tap water,” House Minority Leader Tim Greimel said.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who attended the address, said Snyder’s contrition “does not mitigate the crime that has been committed.”
The U.S. Justice Department is helping the Environmental Protection Agency investigate, and the state attorney general has launched his own probe, which could focus on whether environmental laws were broken or if there was official misconduct.