The immediate causes of the water-contamination crisis in Flint and the hazardous conditions of Detroit’s public schools are by now common knowledge: the poor, shortsighted decisions made by the emergency managers appointed by Michigan’s Republican governor, Rick Snyder. Far less known are the numerous warning signs of the dangers posed by these unaccountable EMs to the people of Michigan—signs that Governor Snyder chose to ignore. The resulting tragedies were thus not only foreseeable, but entirely preventable.
Enacted in 1988, Michigan’s original financial-distress law—which simply authorized the state to involve itself in the affairs of local governments facing a “financial emergency”—was rarely used. Then, in 2005, the right-wing think tank Mackinac Center for Public Policy advocated that law be broadened to grant EMs the power to take over all aspects of local government, including the power to unilaterally reject collective-bargaining agreements, and to insulate EMs from any resulting legal liability. By 2011, Snyder had been elected governor, and Republicans had taken control of both the State Senate and House. One of their first orders of business was to dramatically expand the law along the lines proposed by the Mackinac Center. The EM law soon came to be seen as a vehicle for corporate privatization, with a 2011 New York Times investigation revealing that EM training sessions were “run primarily by representatives from companies who stand to benefit financially.”
As EM appointments increased sharply due to state-imposed cutbacks in local revenue-sharing as well as the impact of the Great Recession, numerous red flags were raised. The Michigan Department of Treasury’s own internal analysis highlighted the law’s overreach, concluding: “This bill allows emergency managers too much power and control over local units of government. Emergency managers can’t be trusted to act in the interests of the local unit and will use the enhanced powers granted under this bill for their own gain.” Professor Kenneth Klee, one of the nation’s preeminent experts on bankruptcy, wrote that the law “is violative of [the US Constitution’s] Contracts Clause…. No prior legislature has had the audacity to legislate the unilateral termination, rejection, or modification of a collective bargaining agreement.” Voting-rights expert Jocelyn Benson, the current dean of Wayne State Law School, found that “there is significant evidence [that the] amended Emergency Financial Manager law has disproportionate impact on the state’s Black and Latino population.”
The appointment of EMs with the power to usurp local elected officials proved to have a significant negative impact on minority communities and their votes, with more than half of the state’s black voters subject to governance by EMs since 2009. Emergency managers have run cities with large African-American populations, such as Highland Park (94 percent), Benton Harbor (89 percent), Detroit (83 percent), Flint (56 percent), Pontiac (52 percent), and Ecorse (46 percent). Benton Harbor, which has been operating under an EM since 2010, saw its voter-participation rate decline by more than half.