By Paul Rozycki
I once knew a math professor who argued that everything in the universe could be explained by numbers and mathematics—from the creation of the most basic atoms, to the formation of the stars and galaxies, to the most complex life forms, to all types of mechanical and electronic devices.
I don’t claim to be enough of a mathematician to prove him right or wrong, but numbers do matter a lot. And most of the biggest issues of our government involve numbers. Yes, budgets and their numbers can be tedious and boring. It’s a lot more fun to gossip about the latest sex scandal, rage at Trump’s craziest tweet of the day, or shake our heads at the latest antics of the city council. But the numbers are the real guts of government. Here are a few numbers that we should be watching in the near future.
Gov. Whitmer’s budget numbers: $56 billion (or less)
Gov. Whitmer will present her budget in the first week of March, and the goals she laid out in her State of the State message will be tested in the hard numbers of the budget. Will she be able to find the money to pay for the roads? How will she find the funds to promise everyone two years of community college education? How will she fund improvements in our K-12 schools? And perhaps most importantly, how will the battle over her budget hurt her chances of working with Republicans?
The current Michigan budget is a little over $56.8 billion, but that number is deceptive. More than a third of that is from federal funds and is restricted to certain projects. Another quarter of the budget is from Michigan funds that are also restricted. Just about a fifth of the budget is from the “general fund” where lawmakers have some real choice of how to spend the money. In the upcoming year, the “general fund” is expected to be approximately $10.7 billion, about what it was last year.
Fix the Damn Roads: $2.7 billion (or more)
Gov. Whitmer presented her first State of the State message a few weeks ago and, like most, it was a list of goals and aspirations for her first year. Perhaps most notable on her list was, of course, the roads. Her “Fix the Damn Roads” campaign slogan was the keystone to her election victory, and most drivers don’t have to be on the road very long to see, and feel, the need for fixing Michigan’s roads.
But where will the money come from? Gov. Snyder began a road repair program by allocating about $1.2 billion for road repair in 2015. But the roads have continued to deteriorate and costs continue to increase. By some estimates, we need at least $2.7 billion or more every year to begin making progress on the roads.
How should we raise that kind of money? Higher gas taxes? Other tax or fee increases? Cuts in other programs? Which programs? A bond issue? None of those will be popular, especially with the Republican majority in the legislature, but Michigan has underfunded its roads for many years. The money will need to come from somewhere, and it won’t be easy or painless. The good news is that there seems to be support for taking real action from both the Republican and Democratic sides of the aisle.
Days since the new Flint City Charter was adopted: 419 days (and more)
Number of days we’ve had an ombudsperson: 0
The new city charter, which took effect over a year ago (419 days as of Feb. 23, 2019) set aside $250,000 for the creation and operation of a Flint ombudsperson’s office. After a long delay, the Ethics and Accountability Board has been established, and is in the process of creating, a job description for the new position.
Yet, progress seems to be moving at a glacial pace, with one delay after another. It’s no secret that some on the council, and in the mayor’s office, are not fans of having an ombudsman looking over their shoulder. But that’s what the voters decided by a 2-1 margin in 2017. It’s time that Flint posts the position, and moves ahead with hiring our first ombudsperson in over eight years. It may be a major issue in this year’s mayoral campaign. And now, with the new charter just barely in place, there are proposals to modify and amend it in ways that might require a new charter revision.
Mayor Weaver’s reelection campaign fund: $250,000
With the primary in August, and the general election next November, the Flint mayoral race has barely begun to heat up. Mayor Weaver, who hasn’t officially announced her candidacy, has already raised about $250,000 for the campaign.
It’s quite possible that the campaign funds are a reflection of the confidence her supporters have in her role as mayor, and her handling of the water crisis. But questions have been raised about the source of those funds. How many come from city contactors? How many are from those who have been involved in working with Flint’s water crisis? Are any of these funds “pay to play” for those who have received city contracts? Will the mayor face a serious challenge in either the August primary or the November election this year? Will any opponent be able to equal her campaign funds?
Flint’s water numbers: four parts per billion
Recent tests of Flint’s water show a continuing improvement in lead levels. As a result of a lawsuit from the Concerned Pastors for Social Action and others, water tests revealed that the 90th percentile for 51 high risk homes in Flint placed the lead levels at four parts per billion, less than the 15 parts per billion that has been considered the federal “action level.” That federal level will drop to 12 ppb starting in 2025. These numbers are in line with other tests within the last year. But a high level of distrust remains in Flint, and it will take more than six months of numbers to change that. From all indications, the number of residents who trust the water will rise much more slowly than the actual improvement in the water.
Money to dig up the pipes: $300 or $5000?
In her response to the Flint water crisis, the governor has reorganized the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) as the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, with the goal of making the reporting of environmental problems more effective. After a brief conflict with Republicans in the legislature, it looks like the reorganization will go ahead, at least for now.
The governor also has indicated the state will avoid micromanaging the Flint water crisis and will allow Mayor Weaver to go ahead with full traditional excavation of the cities remaining water pipes, rather than relying on the less expensive hydro-evacuation process. The hydro-evacuation process costs about $300 per house, and the traditional excavation is about $5,000. The state has agreed to pay back $6.6 million that was withheld during the dispute of how to best replace the pipes in Flint.
Money to fix Flint’s water: $500 million
By some estimates, more than $500 million has been received to repair Flint’s water pipes, and deal with the effects of the water crisis. About $167 million has been set aside for replacement and repair of Flint pipes by the state. Much of the rest is to be spent on children’s health and economic development programs. But, with that amount of money, there has been controversy of how well it has been spent, who is in charge of it, and how well it has been accounted for. Almost certainly those questions will continue to grow, and be the source for more conflict in city hall and beyond.
I don’t know if the math prof was right about mathematics explaining everything, but it looks like a lot of our issues this year will revolve around someone’s numbers, and how they all add up.
EVM political commentator Paul Rozycki can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.