Flint Aid Could Pass Senate, but Faces Uncertain Future

Michigan senators have worked for months to secure aid for stricken city

Flint residents have used bottled water amidst a lead poisoning crisis. Lawmakers have yet to reach agreement on how to provide more federal assistance dollars. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Flint residents have used bottled water amidst a lead poisoning crisis. Lawmakers have yet to reach agreement on how to provide more federal assistance dollars. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Posted September 12, 2016 at 5:00am

The Senate could move forward Monday on a measure that includes aid for Flint, Michigan, nearly one year after a doctor sounded the alarm about high levels of lead in local children’s blood.

Senators will take a procedural vote on a water resources bill that would authorize water infrastructure projects. The measure includes more than $200 million in funds directed at places like Flint. The city’s residents have been coping with lead poisoning in their water, a result of corroded pipes after the city switched water supplies in April 2014.

“If you’re living on bottled water, or don’t have complete confidence that when you turn on your tap, you have clean water, you don’t care where the help comes from,” Sen. Gary Peters said. “You just want help.”

Peters has been working with fellow Michigan Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow to find an avenue to help Flint, and the two believe the so-called Water Resources Development Act, or WRDA, is the right one.

The legislation includes $100 million in assistance to “states with emergency drinking water situations” through a loan program. The federal emergency declaration for Flint expired in August, but the city can still access those funds. The bill also includes $70 million to use for additional loans to improve water infrastructure. And the provision includes $50 million for health programs for victims of lead poisoning. To cover the cost of the aid, lawmakers would take funds from a $250 million advanced vehicle technology program for auto companies.“We’ve dotted every ‘i’ and crossed every ‘t’ to get to this point. And that’s why it’s frustrating,” Peters said. “We’re right on the edge. And I think we’re real close.”

A long time coming

According to Peters, the key was finding the right legislative vehicle for the aid.

Lawmakers attempted to attach aid to a sweeping energy bill earlier this year, but ran up against issues over offsets. So they worked with Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma to reach a compromise in late February.

[Senate Reaches Deal on Flint Aid]

Then, GOP Sen. Mike Lee of Utah blocked the energy bill over the Flint aid, arguing that the Michigan state government caused the problem and had sufficient resources to deal with the crisis. The legislation stalled until the Flint aid was removed when the Michigan senators found a another vehicle.

This time, they again teamed up with Inhofe and Environment and Public Works ranking Democrat Barbara Boxer of California to attach aid to the water infrastructure bill in their committee.

In a way, that helped us in reaching a lot of people because a lot of other people outside of Michigan were interested in that,” Inhofe said of working to include the Flint aid in WRDA. “Secondly, it’s a logical place for it.”

[Water Development Bill Includes Aid for Flint]

Because the Flint aid was included in the text of the bill, Peters said it has a stronger possibility of passing. For example, the Senate does not need a separate floor vote to add the aid as an amendment.

The WRDA also has bipartisan support, and passed out of committee on a 19-1 vote. The bill could pass the Senate as early as this week, but it’s not clear if or when it could get through the House.

“Whether it’s by the end of this month or not, I’m not sure,” Stabenow said.

Not a done deal

The Flint aid is not included in the House version of the WRDA, and Rep. Dan Kildee said it’s not certain whether it will be added. The Michigan Democrat represents Flint, and has been speaking with House Democratic leadership and relevant committee leaders as the Senate moves forward with its bill.

“Our primary focus is getting this support through,” Kildee said. “We’re going to obviously push whatever path is available to us.”

[The New 9th Ward: ‘Flint’s Katrina’ Is Still Going On]

Aid proponents have a key ally in Michigan GOP Rep. Fred Upton who chairs the Energy and Commerce Committee, which has some jurisdiction over potential Flint aid.

Upton traveled to Flint in early September, before Congress returned from its summer recess. He and Kildee spoke with recovery officials and visited a home that was conducting water testing.

Even if the Flint aid was included in the House WRDA bill, it’s not clear when the bill could be ready for floor consideration, according to a person familiar with the House agenda. House leaders are focused on finding a path forward on funding the government into the new fiscal year, which could take up much of the limited legislative calendar.

Kildee said that each day that passes compounds Flint’s struggles.

The water lines don’t get fixed, the people who are in desperate need of support in terms of their health and development don’t get the help they need,” Kildee said. “And the already difficult circumstances in Flint get worse.”

 Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.