Although most governors play it down, all of them think about their legacies. As Michigan Governor Snyder enters the last year of his tenure, despite his denials, he has to be considering what he is bequeathing the state.
Traditionally, Michigan governors exalt their economic record over any other feature of their work. The environment is in the second tier of issues. But there is at least one exception.
When William Milliken left office on New Year’s Day 1983, Michigan’s economy was a wreck. He had little to do with it, just as governors who leave office on a flying carpet of prosperity should get minimal credit. National trends largely shape Michigan’s prosperity or lack of same.
The point, though, is that few today remember the state of the economy when Milliken retired. But his environmental accomplishments remain monumental. He played key roles in laws and rules protecting air quality, water quality, wetlands, wilderness, and sand dunes and promoting recycling, hazardous waste control, toxic site cleanup and more
So Governor Snyder might want to think about legacy opportunities in the realm of conservation and the environment. He has special reason to; the Flint tragedy will otherwise obscure any other environmental issue he has handled.
Here is some simple advice on how to leave a legacy with a chance to be as enduring as Milliken’s
· Begin it with wisdom growing out of the public health emergency that was (and remains) Flint. Much needs to be done, but the most important is to empower an independent toxic substance ombudsman to investigate and move swiftly when a toxic substance emergency threatens. The ombudsman would serve as the nerve endings of government, sensitive to early warnings of contamination and public health impacts, and submitting to the governor on-the-record reports and requests for action. Additionally, rather than denying or dismissing early warning signs, state agencies must be required to err on the side of caution. They should have a direct line to the governor when evidence of an emergency surfaces – and he or she should be accountable for a quick response. A law spelling all of this out is preferable but the governor can issue an order that his successor is unlikely to rescind.
· Deal with the water funding gap that played a role in the Flint catastrophe. The Governor’s infrastructure panel estimated a $19 billion shortfall of what is needed to keep pace with drinking water and sewage treatment over the next 20 years. Snyder should call for a $2 billion water bond to be placed on the ballot in November 2018. Michigan voters have voted by clear margins for bond proposals that are solely or partially devoted to water quality in 1968, 1988, 1998 and 2002. A solid proposal will win their support again. $2 billion is not nearly enough but it’s a healthy start.
· Shut down the Enbridge Line 5 pipelines spanning the waters of the Straits of Mackinac. Enbridge is a guest of the state, using the public’s lakebed with its permission. The company has demonstrated a callous disregard for basic safety and should be evicted. Enbridge will sue, but the Governor will have set the shutdown in motion.
· Finally, protect one of our nationally-recognized crown jewels, the so-called Holy Waters of the Au Sable River east of Grayling. This “fly fisherman’s paradise” is menaced by, of all things, a commercial fish farm discharging fish feces and food into the stream’s cold, clear waters. There might be a couple of jobs involved with the fish farm but there are hundreds of millions of benefits associated with a healthy Au Sable. The state should buy out the fish farm operator and, if the business interests of Grayling want economic development, work with them to find an alternative that doesn’t tarnish the crown.