Ordinarily, Kansans would not look to a medium-sized Michigan city with a large minority population for lessons in politics and policy-making.
But Flint’s continuing water-quality disaster offers clear lessons for any state whose leaders have cut back services and placed greater tax burdens on localities.
As one Michigan conservative activist explained: “Gov. Rick Snyder appointed an emergency manager to address Flint’s longtime fiscal problems. The manager, looking to reduce costs, opted to start obtaining water from the nearby Flint River instead of paying Detroit for the supply. The river had contaminants from years of auto manufacturing, and acted corrosively on the pipes to leach out the lead.”
As the overseer of water quality for Michigan municipalities, the state’s Department of Environmental Quality (sic) failed in early 2014 to require the city to add inexpensive corrosion-control chemicals to this new — and clearly more polluted — water source. During the next 18 months, Flint’s children experienced huge spike in lead levels in their blood.
The DEQ acknowledged its mistake and switched the city back to lake water this past October, but the long-term effects of the lead poisoning will not be known for many years.
Meanwhile, far-right Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, who has shrunk government aggressively in Michigan, did not declare a state of emergency until early January, and has deflected blame from his administration. Although Snyder did not directly order the change in water sourcing, his administration helped create the revenue problems for Flint, implemented the defective policy, and then ignored clear evidence of a developing health crisis.
Finally, as a governor who consistently has attacked the federal government, Snyder last week requested — and President Barack Obama granted — $27 million in emergency disaster aid to help address the evolving disaster.
As with many GOP governors, the federal government is the enemy, until it’s not.
Why is Flint’s public health crisis relevant to Kansas? First, we need to question whether such a situation could happen here. Although an exact repeat is unlikely, the anti-government attitude of Gov. Sam Brownback and the Legislature suggests similar problems already exist, especially for the state’s most vulnerable citizens.
For example, under the Brownback administration, welfare funds — which provide no more than $400 per month for truly poor families — are cut off after 36 months, or 24 months sooner than the federal law requires. Thus, in January, 200 families lost their meager assistance, even as the Kansas poverty rate was climbing and the sales tax on food remained among the highest in the nation.
The state cannot fill its ranks of prison guards or state troopers, as budget shortfalls continue to bedevil state policymakers. Perhaps not as dramatic as lead poisining, but indicative that the state cannot carry out its basic public service responsibilities.
Likewise, for some of the most vulnerable of our fellow citizens, those housed at the Osawatomie State Hospital, cutbacks have meant the facility no longer qualifies for Medicare funding. While administration officials argue patients will not be affected, Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, makes a simple point: “The [budgetary] incompetence hurts taxpayers, as well as the safety of our citizens … . Out of the state general fund, (we) will have to pay the full cost of any patients at Osawatomie.”
Conditions at prisons or mental hospitals, along with public safety on the roads, have not yet produced a story as dramatic as that of Flint’s lead poisoning.
What has become clear, however, is Kansas’ continuing budgetary squeeze and the anti-government, anti-federal assistance stances of state officials have created a series of personal crises for those individuals — the needy, prisoners and the mentally ill — who have the least power to affect policies that directly affect them.
And that’s just plain wrong.
Burdett Loomis is a professor of political science at the University of Kansas.