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Ken Winter

Ken Winter

Is Michigan Really the “Comeback State”?

January 20, 2017

Since early during his first term, Governor Rick Snyder has touted Michigan as the “Comeback State”.  Ask those now living in Flint, northern Michigan and parents of school-aged children across the state, and I think you will find that they have lost their trust in him.

“The success of the reinvention of Michigan can be found in two words: ‘Comeback State’,” Snyder was quoted as saying throughout state and national media in 2013.  “That’s what people call Michigan today, in the third year of our effort to bring a new, customer-friendly approach to government and to provide a favorable business climate that creates more and better jobs. We’re also reshaping the state’s culture to focus on achieving results by working together and using what I call ‘relentless positive action’.”

By some business measurements he’s right: Michigan has achieved success in new employment, economic growth and tax reform.  But when it comes to human needs—such as clean water and education—his leadership has failed and he’s still trying to play catch-up.

In last year’s State of the State, Snyder addressed Flint’s Water Crisis by apologizing directly to the city’s 100,000 citizens and promising to fix the city’s polluted city water.  The problem was caused in part by dishonest municipal workers (now being prosecuted) and a decision by the State Emergency Manager he appointed to try and improve the city’s balance sheet by saving a few bucks on water treatment.

A year later, Flint residents continue to drink bottled and filtered water with a solution to the lead contamination problems thought to be more than two years away.  Last week, Snyder told the Detroit News that a lot of progress has been made.  However, others say he’s not done enough to secure the federal financial aid needed to fix the disaster.  And, ironically, the results could be measured by “job creation”: Gross negligence has resulted in 800 new jobs.

Surely, there are better ways to create new jobs than polluting a city’s water supply.

U.S. Rep Dan Kildee, a potential Democratic contender for governor, doesn’t want the tainted water issue to be forgotten.  Unfortunately, the one-time national headline story now hardly makes the news media.

The other show stopper has been Enbridge’s Pipeline #5, the major oil pipeline that carries 540,000 barrels of oil and natural gas from its terminal in Superior, Wisconsin, across the Upper Peninsula and through the Straits of Mackinac. The pipeline then parallels sensitive Lower Michigan inland waterways to Port Huron, where it passes through Lake Huron to Sarnia, Ontario and merges with Enbridge Line #6, enters area refineries or is trucked elsewhere.

The focus of concern has been on what happens if the nearly 64-year-old (completed in 1953), 1,098 mile pipeline breaks and spills under the Straits of Mackinac, as it did at Crystal Falls in 1999.  And as Enbridge’s Line 6B poured into the Kalamazoo River’s Talmadge Creek in 2010, ranking it as the largest oil spill in North America costing five years and more than a billion dollars to clean up. While the bulk of the cleanup and restoration has been completed, work to restore the river will continue for years to come.

Snyder succeeded in preventing it becoming a campaign issue during his 2014 re-election by creating a Michigan Petroleum Pipeline Task Force chaired by Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette and then DEQ Director Dan Wyatt.  They issued their findings in July, 2015, following the election. Currently, the state is following a task force’s recommendations to complete an independent risk analysis of what it would cost to mitigate the environmental and economic damage to the Straits should there be an oil spoil. The state is requiring Enbridge to pay for the study costs.  No findings have been made public to date.

Like the Flint Water crisis, Pipeline #5 might escape the media spotlight if not for the efforts of the Traverse City-based group, FLOW (i.e. “For Love of Water”), and a consortium of non-profit environmental groups calling themselves, Oil and Water Don’t Mix.

Northern Michigan’s newly-elected U.S. Representative Jack Bergman, a Republican representing Michigan’s 1st congressional district, was surprised to learn that his colleagues have decided to step in to act.  Congress announced Thursday that it is proposing its own bipartisan risk study bill.  Bergman, a retired Marine General, admitted Monday that he knew nothing about the proposal when meeting with the Petoskey Regional Chamber of Commerce.  Bergman said he first learned of the proposed bi-partisan legislation by reading about it in the news last Thursday.

Both the Associated Press and MLive reported that U.S. House Reps. Dave Trott, R-Birmingham, and Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, introduced the “Preserve Our Lakes and Keep our Environment Safe (LAKES) Act” this week, which would require federal regulators to decommission the controversial Line 5 if a 12-month study finds that it poses a significant risk.

The federal legislation represents the latest front for Enbridge in the battle over Line 5, which is already facing a state-level review in Michigan, a challenge to its oil spill response plans in federal court, organized opposition from Michigan businesses, and a potential loss of an easement on a Wisconsin Indian reservation.

When you add Flint’s water crisis and slow action with Pipeline #5 to an already dismissal public education picture presented last fall for both both Detroit and statewide, is Michigan really progressing as well as Snyder claims?  This past Spring, roughly half the students in grades 3-8 failed to score as “proficient” in any of the four key subject areas–English language arts, math, science and social studies.  One has to wonder how much of a “Comeback State” Michigan has really become.

Ken Winter, former editor and publisher of the Petoskey News-Review and member of the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame, teaches political science and journalism at North Central Michigan College in Petoskey and Michigan State University.

Ken Winter, former editor and publisher of the Petoskey News-Review and member of the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame, teaches political science and journalism at North in Petoskey and Michigan State University.

January 19, 2017 · Filed under Winter

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Jack Lessenberry // Jan 27, 2017 at 7:14 am

    This is one of the best examples of essential analytical journalism I’ve seen in a while. We alas, have short memories and shorter attention span.

  • 2 Steve Horton // Jan 28, 2017 at 5:41 pm

    Mr. Winter, I attempted to respond to your article right after it was posted, but was unable to get my email to connect. I wanted to compliment you on a very informative analysis. I attended (and reported on) the State of the State Address earlier this month where the governor presented a laundry list of accomplishments. As I noticed and many commentators have since pointed out, he gave only a brief summary of the Flint Water Crisis, admitting it was a “sad chapter” but otherwise adding the progress-to-date to his list of “Michigan successes.”. He used it to morph into the larger issue of aging infrastructure and the billions needed over the coming years to update and/or replace it. Given that many in the GOP majority seem more interested in further reducing or even getting rid of the state income tax, I suspect his proposal (while very much merited) will not get much interest. Education is, of course, part of the state’s social infrastructure and the publicity last year about the abysmal condition of Detroit school buildings (brought to light thanks to the courage of the district’s teachers) and the current discussion about what to do with low-performing individual schools is evidence that more needs to be done in this area. Gov. Snyder and the Republicans, understandably, wish to tout Michigan as a “Comeback State” and, as you noted in the article, this is true in such areas as jobs and economic growth. (Of course record auto sales and federal initiatives under President Obama like saving the domestic auto industry didn’t hurt). But as you point out, in matters such as environmental protection, fixing Flint’s situation, working to prevent a bushed oil line in the Straits of Mackinac, education, and other matters, our state has a ways to go and, some might say, is in fact headed in the wrong direction.


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