In the liberal worldview, Walmart is the anti-Christ for providing free drinking water to Flint, Michigan’s lead poisoning victims and President Obama is the Savior himself for releasing $80 million of other people’s money to them.
“I want to thank President Obama for quickly responding to our request for federal assistance,” U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, fawned.
“This is the type of leadership and action my community deserves,” Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, gushed.
As it turns out, the president’s aid is phonier than a three-dollar bill because it’s not actually special, it isn’t $80 million and it won’t necessarily go to Flint’s victims.
The federal 2016 omnibus spending bill put $1.4 billion in the Clean Water State Revolving Fund that Uncle Sam created decades ago to help states defray the cost of federal clean water mandates. It was clear from the start that the president was drawing from this fund. But what was less clear was that Michigan is getting only the money it was entitled to – not a penny extra.
As per the law, every state gets a piece of the revolving fund pie based on a statutory formula that takes into account the state’s geographical area, population and the like. Michigan’s share under this formula works out to 4.75 percent – or $66 million of the $1.4 billion. But to get this money Michigan has to put up matching funds of 20 percent, or around $14 million. Add that together and you get the $80 million that Obama is taking credit for.
But what’s even worse than Obama taking credit for the full amount is that, in reality, the bulk of the money may not even go to Flint residents. Why? It is up to Michigan authorities to prioritize spending for various clean water infrastructure projects. That is not stopping Obama from trying to strong-arm Michigan’s leaders to divert this money to Flint. But to the extent that he succeeds, he’ll potentially jeopardize the health of children elsewhere in the state, likely spreading, not containing, the tragedy.
If Michigan doesn’t listen to Obama, however, Flint residents will get even less than the $1,000 each that I had previously reported they would, a slap in their face given how much they are suffering and how much they would have gotten if a private company had been responsible for a tragedy of this scale.
None of this is to suggest that Uncle Sam ought to feel compelled to hand Michigan extra cleanup dollars as some are suggesting (although the EPA has a hand in poisoning Flint residents by staying mum when it knew that city water wasn’t being treated for lead corrosion). That will only create a moral hazard and make state leaders less accountable for screw-ups in future.
Michigan Republican Rep. Justin Amash is entirely right that the state needs to take responsibility for the residents it poisoned and up its $28 million contribution. For example, it can divert the $30 million it spends on a totally useless Pure Michigan ad campaign to pay their medical bills.
But Obama shouldn’t be pretending that he has – to use his words – “the back” of Flint residents when he’s actually showing them his back. It would be far more honest and humane to tell them they are on their own.
Shikha Dalmia is senior analyst for the libertarian Reason Foundation, a columnist at The Week and a Bloomberg View contributor.
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