Gary Wilson's thoughts on Great Lakes issues and occasionally, other things
State of the State address focused on tax cuts and economic development; no mention of long standing water inequities for communities like Detroit, Flint, Benton Harbor and more.
Sometimes what’s not said in a political speech is as important as what’s said. That was the case recently with Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in her annual State of the State speech.
Talking points in a high-profile speech reflect priorities and Whitmer talked about lowering taxes and providing tax credits. A plan to bring manufacturing to Michigan, some minimal action on gun control, the state paying for universal preschool and more.
As always, the devil is in the details and there could be quibbles or disagreement with Whitmer’s proposals depending on your political affiliation. But in general, there’s a lot to like or minimally be worthy of serious consideration by the legislature.
However, this site focuses on the Great Lakes and water-related environmental issues including justice and equity. And Michigan is a water-wealthy state so as I read the speech, I watched for their mention. Ok, I understand that she wouldn’t lead with them, the reality of politics. But surely they’d be included.
But they weren’t unless I skimmed over them.
That caused me to do a word search for environmental justice, environmental racism, water affordability, equity, Detroit, Flint and Benton Harbor.
Also no sale which was curious as a focus on environmental justice and equity were pillars of her 2018 election campaign and supposedly, her first term.
Though the EJ community has said Whitmer’s first term related to EJ issues was lacking. The focus was on processes - like creating the position of an EJ advocate and advisory council - not outcomes that would actually better the lives of people in those communities.
Perhaps only Whitmer and her political advisers know why EJ went from the front to the back burner. But I’ve got a theory based on her administration’s handling of the Benton Harbor drinking water crisis.
Which was Flint redux in spite of the vehement denials that came from Whitmer’s Department of Environment Great Lakes and Energy, the successor to former Gov. Rick Snyder’s much vilified Department of Environmental Quality that botched the Flint crisis.
Following Flint, one water crisis in an environmental justice community was enough for the state, and Whitmer wanted no connection to another. That was the Michigan of the past. Whitmer’s administration did all it could to distance itself from responsibility for Benton Harbor, even though the facts said otherwise.
Facts that caused community and environmental activists to formally request a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency intervention, as it did in Flint.
Facts that generated a lawsuit against the state not dissimilar from the one where the state of Michigan settled with Flint residents for $600 million.
But publicly talking about environmental justice issues in communities like Detroit, Flint and Benton Harbor doesn’t fit with the public image Gov. Whitmer wants to project for the state, or herself.
That of a progressive governor leading the way. Leading by lowering taxes, by protecting the rights of women and positioning Michigan as a leading economic development state.
An image of Michigan as a desirable, progressive state to a national audience, given that Whitmer now has a national profile and potentially national political aspirations according to recent Detroit News reporting.
The reality is that the environmental justice issues facing Detroit, Flint Benton Harbor and other communities require the attention of the governor and legislature.
Especially issues like water shutoffs and affordability where activists have been pleading for a state-wide plan. And if the Lansing political establishment needs a basis for action it can easily be found in a November 2021 report by the University of Michigan’s Graham School.
The report called for prohibition of “water shut offs for economically vulnerable households” and for the state to embrace a role with authority that ensures public health protection, appropriate rates, water quality regulation and more.
There, the University of Michigan has done the research for the state and has provided a blueprint for action.
Michigan’s government is controlled by progressive Democrats, has a wealth of water and is flush with cash. Protecting the vulnerable on water equity issues should be a slam dunk but it’s not a priority.
But there’s still time to make it one.
Bureaucratic Overload: Newly-minted Great Lakes Authority adds to long list of commissions, councils and initiatives
Ohio legislator’s vision is based on an outdated model, adds to an already burgeoning bureaucracy
When I first got involved in Great Lakes issues twenty years ago, a common complaint among advocates was that for environmental protection and restoration, there were too many cooks in the Great Lakes kitchen.
That is, responsibility was diffused over multiple entities plus the state and federal governments. The various states, agencies, councils and commissions could have differing priorities and agendas. In short, no one was in charge. A plan with an overseer was needed.
*As I thought about this post I jotted the entities down off the top of my head and they’re listed below for ease of reference. And I may have missed a few.
But in 2010, that started to change. The federal Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) began funneling money to the region and it was designed to clean up legacy pollutants and provide a host of other benefits. GLRI also had a de facto economic mission. In simple terms, if you cleaned up a toxic hotspot like Muskegon Lake, the area could then support the economy with development and recreational opportunities. GLRI is complicated like most federal programs and needs a significant update but, writ large, it has worked. And the beauty of the program is that it is region-wide.
So now comes Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur, (D-OH) with a new Great Lakes region initiative titled the Great Lakes Authority. It was recently signed into law to promote regional economic development, transportation and environmental protection.
But here’s where I’m confused. Kaptur wants her Great Lakes Authority, which will be two years in the making, to be modeled after the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), according to Toledo Blade reporting.
The TVA was the depression era program in the 1930’s championed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It was designed to provide basic services - running water and electricity - to rural areas in the expansive region where people lived on poverty level incomes. And it was successful. A total of 54 dams were built and the TVA was seen as a model of what was possible, 90 years ago. The model is outdated now.
But the Great Lakes region is not the rural, impoverished Tennessee Valley of the 1930’s.
It is and has been economically developed. Its gross domestic product is $6 trillion which, if a country, would make it the 3rd largest economy in the world, according to the Council of the Great Lakes Region. That talking point is regularly touted by Great Lakes advocates when pitching the importance of the region to the U.S. and Canada.
That federal Great Lakes restoration program has invested approaching $5 billion in the region since 2010 with more to come. And in recent federal budgets, the region has received $1 billion plus for a new Soo Lock plus $325 million is in the works for a new icebreaker. Not bad.
And Great Lakes states are flush with cash, Michigan for example, has nearly a $9 billion budget surplus so it’s hard to cry poor to taxpayers. A goal of the Great Lakes Water Authority would be to secure more federal funding.
And states like Michigan, Ohio and Illinois are actively engaged in competing for, and sometimes winning, private investment in emerging electric vehicle expansion. Pretty good for a region in the midst of shaking that long-eschewed Rust Belt moniker.
I’ve followed Rep. Kaptur’s Great Lakes work as her district borders Lake Erie from Toledo to Cleveland. She’s a D.C. political veteran who is dedicated to protecting the lake and promoting economic development.
But if anything, the region needs less bureaucracy, not more. And Kaptur’s Great Lakes Authority adds to the bureaucratic overload.
Let’s give Kaptur an “A” for effort and thank her for caring, then let the Great Lakes Authority fade away, if it’s not too late.
*The International Joint Commission (U.S. & Canada) Council of the Great Lakes Region (U.S. & Canada), Great Lakes Cities Initiative, Great Lakes & St. Lawrence Governors and Premiers, the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation, the Lake Carriers Association and the U.S. EPA’s GLRI.
Chicago-based environmental journalist