Whitmer to deliver special message on clean water

Workers repairing lead pipes in Flint
City of Flint, Michigan workers prepare to replace a lead water service line pipe at the site of the first Flint home with high lead levels to have its lead service line replaced under the Mayor's Fast Start program, on March 4, 2016 in Flint, Michigan. | Bill Pugliano, Getty Images

As Michigan continues to grapple with serious and costly issues like PFAS and lead contamination, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer plans to give a special message on clean water.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer at the State of the State address, Jan. 29, 2020 | Andrew Roth

Whitmer told the Advance in an interview this week that she plans to speak on water issues likely within “four to six weeks.” Her message will go beyond what she’s outlined in her Fiscal Year 2021 budget plan, which includes funding for schools to replace old drinking fountains and for polluted site cleanups.

Michigan has been ground zero for water issues, first with the Flint water crisis which garnered international attention in 2016. The state also has the most sites in the nation for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, which are found in everything from shampoo to firefighting foam — although experts believe one reason is that Michigan has been more aggressive in identifying the chemicals than other states.

In October, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) named Flint native Ninah Sasy as its first clean water public advocate, as the Advance first reported. Whitmer created the Clean Water Public Advocate position through an executive order last February as part of her administration’s efforts to ensure clean drinking water in the state.

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Whitmer spent the weekend in Washington, D.C., for the National Governors Association winter conference and the Governors Ball and the White House.

In a phone interview Monday, the Advance also asked Whitmer how other governors are dealing with divided government, the upcoming budget process and how to fix local roads. 

The following are excerpts from the interview:

Michigan Advance: Have you talked with any governors who have divided government about how they’ve handled the budget process and what their strategy was? 

Whitmer: So I have a couple colleagues that I touch base with relatively frequently. It’s Tony Evers of Wisconsin and Laura Kelly in Kansas, both of whom have flipped a gubernatorial seat and still need to work with a Legislature that is Republican-controlled. 

Laura is working to expand Medicaid in Kansas, trying to find that common ground with her legislature. Tony’s had a very, I think, tough relationship with his legislature and part of that is ousting an incumbent [Republican Scott Walker]. But we’re all trying to stake out places where we might be able to find some common ground. So we do check in with one another. 

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Michigan Advance: Now that you’ve come out with your budget plan and you laid out your priorities in your State of the State, how optimistic are you about working with Republican leaders and having a smoother budget process than last year? 

Whitmer: Well, I’m hopeful. I think that everyone recognizes last year was not a good way to operate. I think everyone’s committed to doing it better this time around. And when I signed that bill that required we have negotiated budgets by July 1, I’m hopeful that everyone lives up to that and we can get it done and give schools and municipalities the confidence they need as they build their budgets. 

So I am hopeful. I think a lot of the territory we staked out should be inherently nonpartisan and some of the initial reactions have been predictable. I expected some of the political observations, but I think, in large part, when you look at the substance of the reaction, it’s been pretty good. 

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Michigan Advance: Would you be open to signing a bill from the Legislature that would enable bonding for local roads, since that seems to be a really big priority for them now? 

Whitmer: Well, the interesting thing is, the Legislature has to come to the table with a solution on local road funding and frankly, state road funding — a funding solution. Everyone has said that that’s the goal. I recognize bonding is financing; it’s the right thing to do right now considering what we’re confronting and the conversation that hasn’t happened in the Legislature. 

But when [there are] questions from members [of the Legislature] to the budget director [Chris Kolb] about, ‘Oh, what are you doing to do about local roads?’ — where it was kind of ironic because they have to come to the table with a solution, a funding solution. And so I’m hopeful that they do it and that it’s not just about borrowing, that it’s about really doing it right and funding roads. 

Susan J. Demas is a 19-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQs, the state budget, the economy and more. Most recently, she served as Vice President of Farough & Associates, Michigan’s premier political communications firm. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 80 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive. She is the only Michigan journalist to be named to the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Reporters,” the Huffington Post’s list of “Best Political Tweeters” and the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Bloggers.” Susan was the recipient of a prestigious Knight Foundation fellowship in nonprofits and politics. She served as Deputy Editor for MIRS News and helped launch the Michigan Truth Squad, the Center for Michigan’s fact-checking project. She started her journalism career reporting on the Iowa caucuses for The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette. Susan has hiked over 3,000 solo miles across four continents and climbed more than 60 mountains. She also enjoys dragging her husband and two teenagers along, even if no one else wants to sleep in a tent anymore.