How Rick Snyder doomed Flint from the start: Tax cuts for the ultra-rich, poison for the poor

The Michigan governor faces new questions about dark money nonprofits he used to help "transform Michigan"

Published January 29, 2016 12:58PM (EST)

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder  (AP/Carlos Osorio)
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (AP/Carlos Osorio)

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder doesn't want you to know which corporations are paying to salvage his reputation in the wake of the lead poisoning of Flint's children under his watch. In fact, when he was asked about it at a press conference in Flint on Wednesday, he walked out.

At issue are two dark money non-.profits, Moving Michigan Forward and Celebrating the Power of Michigan, that Snyder uses to accept corporate donations to fund various projects, including paying out-of-state P.R. firm Mercury to manage public relations related to Flint. Snyder hired Mercury in the wake of escalating disclosures that he and a series of "emergency managers" he appointed to dictate policy to the struggling city ended up exposing Flint's children to elevated levels of lead in their drinking water.

Snyder claims the two dark money funds -- and a predecessor called "the NERD fund" that he shut down under pressure before he faced reelection in 2014 -- allow him to "transform Michigan" without drawing on the limited resources of the state. But some of those dark money funds have paid for the privatization of state and local resources, like schools and parks and Detroit's water system. So it's easy to see the funds as a way for private corporations to pay the governor to implement the policies that benefit them.

Meanwhile, those secret corporate donations to help Snyder spin the crisis are coming in parallel to a more celebrated set of donations: corporations, celebrities and private citizens sending money and water to Flint. Wal-Mart and Nestlé and Sean Combs and Eminem and Cher and thousands of private citizens providing a basic good, water, that Snyder's government has failed to provide.  Snyder even solicited more modest donations from Michiganders as part of his State of the State speech last week, as if his job was to run telethons like Jerry Lewis.

All this charity -- at least, the charity to provide a basic necessity of life to Flint's residents -- is great, and lord knows the people of Flint, who have been battered by deindustrialization that goes back decades, deserve whatever they can get.

But it obscures another set of giving that isn't happening: taxes.

One of the first things Snyder did when he took office was give business a big tax cut while raising taxes on the seniors and shifting revenue sharing away from cities. He basically gave the rich tax breaks while making the less fortunate pick up the slack. That big tax shift accompanied Snyder's efforts to make "fiscally responsible" cuts in cities like Flint and Detroit.

The same billionaires who are getting a tax cut are also getting their preferred policies. Amway founder Dick DeVos (net worth $6.9 billion) has been pushing many of these privatization schemes for years and Quicken Loans owner Dan Gilbert (net worth $3.7 billion) has benefited from some of Snyder's privatization schemes in Detroit -- while emergency managers cut government services for the less fortunate.

It was inevitable that Snyder's "fiscally responsible" cuts would start harming the people Snyder paternalistically pretended to help. And Flint's children are not alone. A health department audit of Detroit's schools, which is now led by one of the emergency managers who switched Flint over to corrosive water, shows Detroit's kids are being exposed to rats and mold and cold temperatures at school.

These things all go together: the tax cuts for the rich, the defunding of poorer areas, the secret donations from corporations to back such policies, and the charity that Flint residents now need to get safe drinking water. It's what you get when the rich buy policies -- and the P.R. to spin those policies -- that get governments out of the business of basic governance.

In a state with working government, Flint's children wouldn't need to rely on the kindness of strangers and movie stars for clean drinking water. But that's what Rick Snyder's patrons -- the rich men who could afford all the water in Flint and far more -- have demanded.

By Marcy Wheeler

Marcy Wheeler writes at and is the author of "Anatomy of Deceit."

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Flint Flint Water Crisis Michigan Rick Snyder