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Lansing — Republicans on Thursday criticized Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s claim that lawmakers opposing her executive order to overhaul the state environmental department are voting against clean water, calling her comments “ridiculous” and “insulting.”

Whitmer’s order — which would eliminate environmental permit and rule review panels Republicans wrote into law last year that give businesses a greater say in the process — has sparked the first public clash between a governor who pledged to “build bridges” and GOP leaders who have preached bipartisanship.

Whitmer said Wednesday that House Republicans “voted against clean drinking water” when they voted to overturn her order. “The action endangers our public and it threatens to burn bridges, and that’s unfortunate,” she said.

But it’s Whitmer’s comments that were unfortunate, said Sen. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, who chairs the Senate Oversight Committee that began considering her executive order on Thursday. The panel did not vote and is expected to continue its debate next week.

“I found them really disappointing,” McBroom said of Whitmer’s remarks. “I’m trying to have a fair process here where we take up the executive order, which is our right and our duty.”

The oversight panels that Whitmer wants to abolish include officials from industries like oil and gas, business advocacy and environmental groups. They have the authority to delay environmental rules that could burden businesses or overturn state permit application decisions.

Whitmer has argued the panels create “unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles” that will get in the way of swift responses to drinking water contamination and other environmental threats. The governor is welcome to explain her concerns to the committee and make the case for changes to the law, McBroom said.

“Instead her comments were simply that all those who voted for these bills last term and want to see these bills stay the law of the land, they want people to drink dirty water. They want people to be poisoned. And that’s a ridiculous and insulting statement for all of us who support clean water and clean air,” he said.

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Gov. Gretchen Whitmer responds after House Republicans vote to reject her environmental executive order that abolished oversight panels created by GOP Jonathan Oosting, Detroit News Lansing Bureau

The House voted to reject Whitmer's order two days after she signed it, but the Michigan Constitution gives the Legislature 60 days to act. The Senate is taking a more deliberate approach, but the governor's comments have rankled top leaders in the upper chamber who hope to find some common ground with the former Senate minority leader. 

While Whitmer accused House Republicans of “taking partisanship as an opening salvo,” Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey told reporters he thinks “the first volley may have been tossed” by Whitmer in her press conference.

“It’s not about me liking or not liking” what she said, “but her tone was very apparent, let’s put it that way,” said Shirkey, R-Clarklake.

Shirkey did not commit to overturning the executive order but said he looks forward to a recommendation from the oversight committee.

“The governor and I have talked personally about this, and we have a difference of opinion,” he said of her move to abolish the panels. “I think there was a bit of an overstretch there, and her stepping into the legislative lanes, and we’re going to have to work that out.”

Abolishing the rule and permit commissions is part of a larger Whitmer order that would revamp environmental efforts under a new Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, which she has broad authority to reorganize under the state Constitution.

After issuing her edict to abolish the review commissions created by Republicans, Whitmer is now also asking Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel for a legal opinion on whether the panels violate the federal Clean Air and Clean Water acts.

Despite her frustrations with the House vote, Whitmer laughed off the suggestion that her first dispute with the GOP-led Legislature has or will jeopardize efforts to build relationships across the aisle.

“Nothing’s irredeemable,” she said, noting that as of Wednesday she was in her 37th day on the job. But “this action is a huge setback, I’m not going to perfume it.”

Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, offered a similar assessment.

"If they take this unprecedented step of rejecting an executive order, then we'll move onto the next issue," he said. "I don't think that bipartisanship meant we were going to agree on everything all the time every single day. this is just one of those examples where we don't."

The Michigan Legislature has not rejected an executive order since 1977, when both chambers overturned an order from Republican then-Gov. William Milliken. 

Thursday’s Senate Oversight Committee again focused on both Whitmer’s use of executive power and a policy debate over the environmental review panels her order would eliminate.

“It is not an example of building bridges, and if it is, I believe it is a bridge too far,” said Rep. Jim Lower, R-Cedar Lake, who sponsored the resolution now before the Senate.

Former Sen. Tom Casperson, an Escanaba Republican who sponsored the 2018 laws, disputed the suggestion the review panels are designed to protect “bad businesses” and polluters from regulations.

“The bulk of what started all of this has nothing to do with big companies and everything to do with private citizens of the state of Michigan,” he said, suggesting he was motivated to help the “little guy” caught in rule and permit disputes with state regulators.

He blasted the state Department of Environmental Quality over a river dam permit dispute with Republic that nearly forced the small Upper Peninsula community to cancel its 27th annual fishing tournament in 2017.

Sen. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, said he is also concerned about “the little guy getting crushed” but suggested the review panels could block improved environmental protections.

 “I’m looking out for a different set of little guys, you know the children in Detroit that are getting asthma from breathing dirty air … because we’re trying to maximize the economic utility of someone down the street from them,” Irwin said.

The Michigan Chamber of Commerce, a powerful advocacy group whose political action committee has donated to many lawmakers, on Wednesday praised the state House for voting to “protect stakeholder involvement on environmental oversight committees.”

“Expanding openness, accountability and transparency in environmental regulations and permitting is a priority for the Michigan Chamber,” Jason Greer, director of energy and environmental policy, said in a statement.

But Whitmer’s executive directive has support from another group called the Great Lakes Business Network, which Bell’s Brewery owner Larry Bell called “the beginning of a chamber of commerce for those that believe clean water is important to business.”  

Great beer requires good water, said Bell, noting PFAS chemical contamination that was detected in Parchment drinking water, which is not too far from Bell’s locations in Kalamazoo and Comstock.

A Whitmer campaign donor, Bell said his business is highly regulated, and he welcomes many of the rules. If lawmakers vote against Whitmer’s executive order, “they’re voting against clean water, and I just don’t think that’s acceptable,” he said.

joosting@detroitnews.com

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