You’re getting the kids off to school or getting ready to go to work when you catch something on the news about lead poisoning in the Flint, Michigan water supply, but you don’t live in Michigan and you have things to do.
You remember hearing something about it being the result of an attempt to save money. But it sure sounds like it’s going to cost them a lot more money to clean up the mess than they ever saved, so what’s that all about?
Here’s what you, as a voter and a citizen, should know: it isn’t just a tragic tale in Michigan. These seemingly random events are popping up all over the country. And what’s worse is they’re driven by a national agenda, and it will get to your town sooner or later — if it’s not already there.
Like many industrialized cities, Flint has been in economic trouble since the 1970s, and more than 40 percent of its residents live below the poverty line. Starting in 2011, Michigan’s governor appointed a series of emergency managers to cut costs. Local services were downsized. Yes, when a city is bleeding money, you have to make some cuts. But unless your intention is to destroy the town, you have to make cuts in such a way that the municipality is on a path to fiscal sustainability. Instead, Flint’s emergency manager enacted a dangerous plan in 2013 to temporarily use Flint River water while another pipeline was being constructed. To save $5 million over two years, the city is facing $45 million in repairs, not to mention exposing more than 8,000 children to dangerous levels of lead.
It was another one of those classic Republican cost-cutting measures, which fell well in line with the manager’s interest in privatizing the water and sewer systems.
The Michigan-based Eclectablog has been following the crisis, and notes the testimony of Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards at yesterday’s congressional oversight hearing:
He reiterated that the corrosive impacts of Flint River water could have been entirely mitigated by an inexpensive – “$80-100 a day” – phosphate treatment which was not part of the water treatment plan for the Flint River water that DEQ approved. He also explained that DEQ didn’t just forget to add the phosphate, they actively chose NOT to add it because Flint was moving to the Karegnondi Water Authority system so adding it would have been “a waste of time”.
“When we got involved in August, as a matter of fact,” he told the Committee, “There’s an MDEQ memo that said, ‘Shouldn’t someone tell those folks from Virginia Tech that we’re switching to the pipeline next year so they don’t bother wasting their time on this issue?’”
As it turns out, the KWA pipeline won’t be open for business until this summer at the earliest, over two years after Flint’s switch to the Detroit River.
Republican governors, especially when dealing with heavily-minority communities like Flint, are quick to strip their elected officials of political autonomy, taking advantage of financial crises to take over municipal management and schools to “prove” how conservative management works. Remember, it’s not just Michigan. More than a dozen states across the country allow for this takeover.
Importantly, this also strips residents of their voting rights, because their votes no longer have any value.
The Detroit NAACP believes that the law is not being applied evenly and that the process of appointing managers is flawed and unfair. About 50 percent of Michigan’s African-American population is now under the control of an emergency manager.
“We believe there is a disparate impact on African Americans in this state,” he said. “The city of Walled Lake was not given an emergency manager, yet they have a $10 million deficit.”
Anthony says that the cities of Troy, Hazel Park and Pleasant Ridge, all municipalities with majority-white populations, have experienced varying levels of financial problems but have not come under financial oversight.
Appointing the city manager is not the only typical privatization move for Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, he’s a typical union-busting, austerity-loving conservative.
After he was first elected in 2010, one of the first things he did was to successfully push for a bill that limited collective bargaining rights for public employees, and then appointed an emergency manager for Detroit. In December 2012, he pushed for a state “right-to-work” law that resulted in rioting from union members. (In case you didn’t know, “right to work” is Republican-speak for “let’s weaken unions so workers earn less.”)
In the spirit of kicking people when they’re down, we also have the state refusing to meet its statutory obligation for sales-tax revenue-sharing. Since 2003, Lansing officials have diverted $6.2 billion from Michigan’s cities, and $55.9 million from Flint, to plug their own budget holes.
This wasn’t fiscal irresponsibility on Flint’s part, or any of those other cities. But they’re the ones being blamed.
We do see a familiar pattern. We have the poisoned water that resulted from these policies, and a long track record of neglect, followed by interest in privatizing the neglected programs. And we have Republican officials blaming state employee pensions for the problem.
And it’s happening all over the country. Why are so many areas experiencing similar issues?
What ties this all together is the all-too-obvious influence of the American Legislative Exchange Council, the organization that’s a right-wing union-busting, gun-loving, privatizing bill mill. ALEC is an organization that exists for no other reason than to write model state legislation that conservative politicians can introduce and pass on behalf of the Koch brothers’ scorched-earth, free-market policies. (By the way: Reason magazine, which this ALEC tweet references, is also funded by the Kochs.)
If you want to see a classic example of ALEC’s policies in action, look no further than the economic train wreck that is Gov. Sam Brownback’s Kansas.)
ALEC also wrote the model for Snyder’s right-to-work bill.
This act prohibits government from engaging in any commercial activity of any goods or services to or for government agencies or for public use which are also offered by private enterprise. It establishes a Private Enterprise Advisory Committee to act in conjunction with the state auditor to review and make determinations concerning state agencies engaged in or proposed to be engaged in activities which unfairly compete with the private sector. It also establishes a system to resolve complaints from the private sector regarding unlawful government activity established in this Act. (An example of this bill is Oregon BB #2778, 1993.)
That’s crazy, you might think. No one will go for that. Guess again: ALEC may not be getting every bill passed, but every year they get more. They keep pushing legislation until it finally passes — they’re very well-funded, and they’re very, very patient.
So when you read about something like the Flint water crisis, you can’t see it in a vacuum. Don’t write it off as a distant financial problem, the bad economy, or incompetence. There is a plan to neglect and then privatize our governments and regulatory agencies, and powerful interests are using our state legislatures to get there.
You’ll see it keep happening. You would do well to learn the signs.