The Michigan Presidential Primary brought increased attention to the Flint water crisis and rustbelt economic struggles. There was still room for more state government issues to arise.
Flint Water Crisis
Emails Released — The Governor recently began releasing batches of emails created by or sent to and from he and his staff. These emails are exempt from the Michigan’s Freedom of Information law but would eventually surface during the discovery process connected with the dozen or so lawsuits filed against various entities.
According to Gongwer News, “Several people speaking on background and some on the record said the principal revelation in the governor’s unprecedented release of 5,533 pages of emails exchanged among the Executive Office staff and documents attached to those emails was that virtually every staffer in Mr. Snyder’s inner circle had the information necessary to galvanize a response to Flint’s water problems long ago and that did not happen.”
Continuing, Gongwer News stated “Friday’s email release showed that essential people in Mr. Snyder’s circle - former legal counsel Michael Gadola, then-deputy legal counsel Valerie Brader and others - warned of the problems in using Flint River water or were aware of concerns about a link between the river and the Legionnaire’s outbreak. It already was known that former Chief of Staff Dennis Muchmore had been working extensively on the water problems and that former Department of Environmental Quality Director Dan Wyant and Mr. Snyder’s urban affairs chief, Harvey Hollins, knew of concerns about the Legionnaire’s connection for almost a year before that outbreak was publicly revealed.”
OAG Audit Report —The long awaited Michigan Auditor General’s Report on the Department of Environmental Quality’s Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance’s application of various rules and oversight functions was issued February 23.
In the guarded language that it routinely uses, the OAG found that the department did not require the Flint Water Treatment Plant to implement corrosion control treatment when switching to the Flint River as its water source and that lack of optimized corrosion control treatment may have contributed to the elevated lead levels in the drinking water system.
The auditor general found the DEQ had not required immediate corrosion control when testing indicated the water exceeded federal lead levels because it interpreted the federal Lead and Copper Rule requirements as allowing for two consecutive six-month monitoring periods prior to determining whether treatment was necessary to optimize corrosion control.
The DEQ agreed with the OAG report, but said: “As the audit acknowledges, the federal Lead and Copper Rule enforced by the DEQ is ambiguous. Going forward the DEQ will require water supplies with existing corrosion control treatment, or those purchasing water with corrosion control treatment, to have (it) in place at the time of a change in water source or a change in treatment that may result in lead leaching from pipes.” The OAG audit report can be found at http://1.usa.gov/1Ssb3yg.
Systemic Causes —Former House Fiscal Agency Director and Great Lakes Economic Consulting economist Mitch Bean issued a statement March 4 noting that the U.S. Census Bureau’s most recent report shows state funding to local governments increased in 45 states by an average of 48.1 percent. In Michigan, municipal revenue from state sources declined 56.9 percent from 2002 to 2012. Kansas had the next largest decline at 14.3 percent.
Michigan cities are letting their roads and infrastructure fall apart and have allowed their police and fire departments ranks to decline because they simply don’t have the money to put into them, Bean said. Meanwhile, local government’s declining property tax base has cost locals a combined $88.3 million from 2002 to 2013, Bean said.
And 24 state-enacted sales tax changes have reduced constitutional revenue sharing payments to cities, villages and townships $27.3 million in FY ’14 alone, and $181.2 million cumulatively since Proposal A was approved in 1994, he said.
Good News — The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has approved the state’s application to expand Medicaid coverage to all children up to age 21 and pregnant women with incomes up to 400 percent of the federal poverty level who used the Flint water system since April 2014. This will provide Medicaid coverage to an additional 15,000 children and pregnant women, and 30,000 current Medicaid beneficiaries will be eligible for expanded services.
A bipartisan plan in the U.S. Senate could send $100 million in federal aid to Flint.
Michigan’s House Speaker Kevin Cotter and Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof recently announced the formation of a Joint Committee on the Flint Public Health Emergency, which will take testimony on “mistakes at all levels of government,” officials said, as well as review the findings surrounding the water crisis and explore potential policy solutions. However, the Committee will not have subpoena powers, a bone of contention with the Democrats.
The Governor has signed a $30 million supplemental appropriation to credit Flint residents for a portion of their water bills in which the water was tainted and unusable. That brings to $70 million the state’s total emergency funding dedicated to the Flint water crisis over the past couple of months.
Michigan’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Eden Wells took a leave of absence from her position at the University of Michigan to become a full-time contractual employee of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services during February. Since April 2015, she held only part-time status and that was technically in violation of state law.
The state has created 10 “Sentinel Site” teams consisting of representatives from the Department of Environmental Quality alongside licensed plumbers to begin visiting 402 identified residential sites across nine Flint wards to inform residents on testing their water. The sites will be established for ongoing lead and copper monitoring and will be resampled periodically to help determine when the drinking water advisory will end, state officials announced. The testing regimen calls for resampling every two weeks for two months.
Flint Mayor Karen Weaver broke ground on Flint’s “Fast Start” program on March 4. Thirty Flint homes will have their lead service lines replaced with copper pipes by the end of March paid for with $2 million in state funding. The Mayor is asking for $50 million in state and federal funding for the project.
Snyder’s Future —House Minority Leader Tim Greimel (D-Auburn Hills) has officially called on Governor Rick Snyder to resign in light of the Flint water crisis, saying it is “inconceivable” the governor did not know the severity of the problem until October 2015 and “has presided over a culture lacking transparency and accountability in his administration.”
After 20 tries with more yet scheduled, two petitions to recall Governor Snyder have been approved by the Board of State Canvassers. The latest petition refers to the Flint lead-contaminated water issues. An earlier petition referred to reorganizing the Detroit schools but those sponsors have vowed to work with Rev. David Bullock on distributing the new petition scheduled to begin on Easter Sunday. To go onto the ballot, the distributors must be able to get signatures from 789,133 registered voters in a 60-day period within 180 days.
The U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s second hearing on the Flint water crisis will be held March 15 with former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Region 5 Administrator Susan Hedman, former Flint Emergency Manager Darnell Earley, former Flint Mayor Dayne Walling and Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards scheduled to testify. On March 17 at 9 a.m. Governor Rick Snyder is slated to testify along with current EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy.
Grand Rapids Home for Veterans
On February 18 the Michigan Office of the Auditor General released a scathing audit of the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans. The audit found that the facility was failing to meet staffing needs 81 percent of the time during four sampled months; documentation that falsely claimed it was performing resident local checks when those were not occurring 43 percent of the time; 90 percent of abuse and neglect complaints were not properly forwarded to the director of nursing over a 23-month period; and roughly $5.2 million in non-narcotic drugs were not properly accounted for or protected against loss or misuse. On the financial side, the Home is at risk of losing $883,700 in eligible insurance reimbursements over a 23-month period because it didn’t bill all of the residents’ insurance companies or follow up on rejected claims.
By the end of the day, former Snyder campaign manager and Director of the Veterans Affairs Agency, Jeff Barnes, had resigned and Jim Redford has been appointed interim director for the Veterans Affairs Agency.
On Thursday, March 3, a joint hearing of four House and Senate committees related to government oversight or military and veterans affairs was held in response to the audit. At the hearing Leslie Shanlian, CEO of the Michigan Veteran Health System since October 2015, testified that she was addressing issues with the contractor (J2S) and staff as it relates to resident checks. She has also implemented quality assurance measures, including spot checks via senior management (such as herself) and video cameras.
The Michigan Veteran Affairs Agency has asked for a $4.2 million, mid-year budget supplemental to bring the state’s veterans homes up to federal standards, which will include hiring up to four new employees. Notable is a $1.2 million line-item for hiring a “Medicaid consultant” to help the three-year-old agency achieve federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) certification.
State unions have protested privatized direct-care workers in the Grand Rapids Veterans Home since its inception. Last November they filed an administrative complaint with the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration over staffing levels and care in the facility. At the time they issued a statement saying “Our veterans have suffered too long at the hands of a negligent state bent on valuing the idea of cost savings over decent care. A penny saved should not be a penny earned at the expense of our retired servicemen and women.”
Mental Health Funding
Governor Snyder’s budget proposal to shift management of mental health treatment dollars from public community mental health organizations to private HMOs has received bipartisan criticism. The administration has insisted it is not privatizing mental health care but wants HMOs to manage the money to better integrate physical and mental health treatments. The HMOs would be required to contract with the community mental health organizations for services. But advocates and lawmakers continued to say that the change would actually increase administrative costs, diminish services to patients, or add confusion to an already confusing system. As a result of the pushback, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley is leading a work group from both sides of the issue to gather facts.
On Tuesday March 1, former legislators Todd Courser and Cindy Gamrat who resigned (Courser) or were expelled (Gamrat) from the House of Representatives last September after getting caught in a sex and cover-up scandal were arraigned on felony charges of misconduct in office. Both were released on their own personal recognizance bonds. Gamrat faces two counts of misconduct in office, each punishable by up to five years in prison. Courser is charged with lying under oath to the Select Committee in the House of Representatives, which carries a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison, and three counts of misconduct in office. Further hearings are expected in mid-March.
Michigan SERA put in a card of support at the Michigan House Committee on Health Policy hearing on SB 292, the proposed Michigan Caregiver Act. The bill would require a hospital to give a patient an opportunity to designate an after-discharge caregiver who would have a right to patient information. The bill passed the Senate last December unanimously and appears headed for the Governor’s approval.
Two bills passed the Michigan Senate in February to require the Governor’s executive budget to include reporting of unfunded accrued pension liabilities (SB 292) or require an executive summary of annual valuation reports on pension and retiree health care for state pension systems (SB 738). Both bills are now in the House Financial Liability Reform Committee.
HB 5128 to allow retired state employees to contract with the Department of Natural Resources for wildfire suppression without losing their pension have passed the House and have been sent to the Senate Appropriations Committee.
SERA Recent News — If you are a SERA member, you are eligible to receive SERA Recent News, a periodic e-mail about breaking news and media stories of interest to state employees and retirees. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org, giving your name and chapter.
Editor’s note: Mary Pollock is the Lansing SERA Chapter and SERA Council’s Legislative Representative. She may be contacted at 1200 Prescott Drive, East Lansing, MI 48823-2446; Phone 517-351-7292; E-mail email@example.com.
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