A Poisonous Approach to Governing

Michigan National Guard Flickr

The Flint water crisis is a disaster on all levels, and many factors are to blame—austerity measures imposed by emergency management, the Snyder administration’s gross mismanagement, EPA’s failure to step in. It is also a consequence of a poisonous trend—running states like corporations. Flint reminds us yet again that corporations and their political front groups have hijacked our democracy—with real and lasting impacts on our water and public health.

In Michigan, the governor has the power to appoint emergency managers who assume complete control over municipalities, stripping elected officials of their ability to govern. Emergency managers may as well be called “emergency dictators.” They can make decisions about every aspect of a city’s governance, including firing elected officials or determining the fate of a water system. Much like a corporate CEO, their eye is usually on the bottom line.

But states are not corporations. While conservatives often claim that experience as a corporate executive qualifies them for high office, the analogy fails when put into action. Government works best when decisions are made in the public interest; cutting costs almost always means cutting corners, which is exactly what happened in Flint. Health experts recommend that every child in Flint under the age of six— over 8,000 children—be considered exposed to lead poisoning. We don’t yet know the full extent of this public health crisis, but many lives have been forever marred because a government bureaucrat opted to cut corners.

Unfortunately, this is not the first time that a water system has been sacrificed in the name of cost-cutting measures, nor is it likely to be the last. That’s due in part to a heightened new trend of conservative influence over many of our nation’s policies, particularly on the state level.

Rightwing free market think tanks like the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, funded by billionaire Charles Koch, have been major forces in undermining democratic control on the state level, particularly in their support of emergency management. The Mackinac Center aggressively pushed for expanded emergency management powers in Michigan, and its former director of municipal finance, Louis Schimmel, served as emergency manager in Pontiac, Michigan.

The Mackinac Center is also a member of the rightwing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a policy organization that seeks to rewrite state laws to give more power to corporations. ALEC has been a major force behind this trend to undermine democratic control of water, thereby threatening its integrity as a public good.

The group has written model legislation intended to starve states of funding for water while paving the way for corporate takeovers of municipal water systems. The National Association of Water Companies, a trade association for water corporations, is a member of ALEC, and has worked with the group on privatization-related issues.

But it is not the job of corporations to provide essential public services, and studies show that investor owned utilities typically charge 33 percent more for water and 63 percent more for sewer service than local government utilities. After privatization, water rates increase at about three times the rate of inflation, with an average increase of 18 percent every other year.

Wenonah Hauter

Wenonah Hauter is the executive director of the consumer advocacy group Food & Water Watch. She has worked extensively on energy, food, water and environmental issues at the national, state and local level. Experienced in developing policy positions and legislative strategies, she is also a skilled and accomplished organizer, having lobbied and developed grassroots field strategy and action plans.

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