Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer made the environment and clean water one of her top three priorities last week in her annual budget proposal to the state legislature.
After giving environmental and climate issues only a passing mention in her annual State of the State speech, Whitmer’s budget director Chris Kolb told legislators that protecting Michigan’s water will be a “core priority.”
Michigan has been beset with legacy environmental issues since long before Whitmer took office in January 2019.
PFAS, a group of chemicals short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, continues to dominate water quality news, replacing lead in drinking water as perhaps the most significant threat. In December, a toxic “green ooze” leaked on to a major highway and was traced back to a defunct electro-plating company. Last November, a bulk storage site with potentially contaminated materials collapsed into the Detroit River.
Investments in education and public health were the other priorities in the budget proposal.
Environment, climate and water
A combined $100 million is in the budget for climate change resilience, to promote healthy environments in schools and to support rapid responses to environmental contamination.
The proposal cited the need “to help plan for and prevent the negative impacts of Michigan’s changing climate conditions like high water levels.”
The budget allocation for schools is focused on air and water quality improvement and lead and asbestos abatement.
The budget provides $10 million for farmers to implement conservation practices that will combat algal blooms. Nutrient runoff from farms is a contributor to Lake Erie’s algal blooms.
Separate from funding, Chicago’s Environmental Law and Policy Center recently called on Whitmer to lead her colleagues on controlling nutrient runoff to Lake Erie. While Michigan is making progress, “Ohio needs a push,” ELPC said.
Whitmer is chair of the group of governors and Canadian premiers who have pledged to deal with Lake Erie’s algae problems.
The budget also includes a renewal of $8 million originally funded by former Gov. Rick Snyder to help Illinois fight Asian carp. Illinois has not yet agreed to the Army Corps of Engineers’ carp plan and has not accessed the funding.
Separate from one-time funding of $20 million, the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy’s budget will increase from $494 million to $503 million, according to spokesperson Scott Dean.
Whitmer has been a vocal critic of the administration of former Gov. Rick Snyder and the Republican legislature for not boosting funding for EGLE, saying the agency was underfunded and understaffed for eight years.
She recently called for the Republican majority in the legislature to “ensure EGLE has the technology and resources it needs to keep the public safe,” according to a Michigan Radio report.
“The proposed budget increase of $9 million and additional $20 million in one-time funding to beef up emergency response capabilities acknowledges the importance of EGLE’s mission and is another step in the right direction,” spokesperson Dean told Great Lakes Now when asked about Whitmer’s underfunding claim.
The art of the possible
Veteran Michigan environmental policy adviser Dave Dempsey praised Whitmer’s inclusion of $20 million in one-time funding in her budget for rapid response to contamination saying it is “much needed.”
But he was circumspect on the overall budget process.
“Politics is the art of the possible,” Dempsey said, and “environmental programs are unpopular with the people running the legislature.”
“There’s been a pathetic level of disinvestment on the environment in Michigan going back decades,” Dempsey said. He commended Whitmer for “taking steps, however small, to reverse the long-term trend.”
Dempsey has been analyzing Michigan environmental budgets since he was on the staff of former Michigan Gov. James Blanchard. He currently advises the nonprofit For Love of Water.
Next steps for the budget
There had been no mention by Whitmer of the Enbridge Line 5 pipeline in her State of the State speech or budget proposal. Shutting down Line 5 was her signature environmental election campaign issue.
The pipeline is tied up in the courts where Enbridge prevailed on the legality of the agreement between Michigan and Enbridge. An additional court ruling is pending.
Whitmer also campaigned on an aggressive environmental justice agenda and said in her campaign that “no Michigander should suffer an interruption in their water service because of a delinquency in bill payments.”
Water shutoffs were not mentioned in her State of the State address or the budget proposal.
By contrast, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot pledged last year to end water shutoffs and did so on her first day in office. Months later a water affordability plan was in her first budget and it was approved by the city council.
Whitmer’s budget proposal now goes to the legislature. House speaker Lee Chatfield said in a statement that the budget committee will vet the proposal on a line by line basis.
“With a willing partner, we will pass a strong plan that keeps Michigan on the comeback path for years to come,” Chatfield said.
Featured Image: Gretchen Whitmer surrounded by the press, Photo by gretchenwhitmer.com