Whitmer gives update on Flint water crisis during first State of the State

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Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer laid out her legislative priorities during her first State of the State address on Tuesday.

Whitmer briefly discussed the Flint water crisis in her speech, saying that the city’s water last month showed the lowest levels of lead contamination since the crisis started four years ago.

“That’s good, but our work is not done,” Whitmer said. “We are home to 21 percent of the world’s fresh water and yet too many families in Flint and across our state don’t have access to clean drinking water.”

Last week, Whitmer signed two executive orders restructuring the Department of Environmental Quality and creating a Clean Water Public Advocate.

Flint Mayor Karen Weaver awaits the beginning of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s first State of the State address on Feb. 12, 2019. (Andrew Roth | Flint Beat)

Flint Mayor Karen Weaver said that, while she enjoyed the governor’s address overall, the executive order doesn’t do enough to restore the city’s trust in government.

“I have some concerns around some people that are left in place with MDEQ; a lot of them are the same people that didn’t speak up and speak out about Flint,” Weaver said. “I’m for restructuring but you have to restructure and change people, too, because just restructuring isn’t enough when you have the same people that wouldn’t speak up.”

But state Rep. Sheldon Neeley (D-Flint) said it’s too early in Whitmer’s term to criticize her.

“We have to wait and find out what her full plan is and take a look at her plan before we can criticize any portion of the plan,” Neeley said. “I think it’s unfair for anyone to be critical of the governor as you’re formulating deconstructing eight years of madness in the governor’s office.”

Republican members of the Michigan House of Representatives voted 58-51 last week to overturn Whitmer’s executive order because it removed the Environmental Rules Review Committee, Environmental Permit Review Commission and Environmental Science Advisory Board, which the Legislature approved last year.

A Senate vote on overturning the executive order could take place as soon as this week.

Attorney General Dana Nessel and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson listen to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s first State of the State address on Feb. 12, 2019. (Andrew Roth | Flint Beat)

Shortly after the House vote, Whitmer asked Attorney General Dana Nessel for her legal opinion on the commissions that the executive order disbanded.

“These commissions create unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles that get in the way of our state government responding to problems with drinking water quickly, and their creation may violate federal requirements under the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act,” Whitmer said in a statement.

Nessel quickly responded that she will “carefully evaluate this request.”

Weaver also expressed her concern that revenue sharing was not a topic of discussion in Whitmer’s address because “that’s how we lost a lot of our police and fire [departments].”

Weaver said that she has requested a meeting with the governor to discuss revenue sharing, restoring the distribution of bottled water, and economic development opportunities.

“She did talk about small businesses and entrepreneurship and the importance of supporting that, and that’s one of the things we’re seeing in Flint,” Weaver said.

Before Whitmer took office on Jan. 1, the Michigan Advance reported that Whitmer would restore bottled water distribution until Flint’s pipes were replaced.

After taking office, however, Whitmer declined to say whether she would push for state funding to reinstate the program once Nestle stops providing free water after April.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) talks to media after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s first State of the State address on Feb. 12, 2019. (Andrew Roth | Flint Beat)

“I think at this juncture it’s too early to answer that question with any specificity,” Whitmer said. “What I will say is that until all the pipes are replaced, we’ve got to make sure that people have clean water to drink.”

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) and House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) said that funding will be key to the issues Whitmer discussed in her speech, which includes fixing Michigan roads and offering two years of debt free college education for Michigan high school graduates.

Whitmer will present her budget proposal on March 5.

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