GOP signals support for Whitmer's new environmental order

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer delivers her State of the State speech. Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey listens at left.

Lansing — Leaders in Michigan’s Republican-led Legislature signaled Thursday they will let Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer move forward with a revised plan to reconfigure and refocus the state's environmental department.

Republicans last week rejected an initial executive order from Whitmer, but the new version she issued Wednesday “takes into account many of the concerns expressed by our caucus, and I appreciate her willingness to extend this act of bipartisanship,” Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, said in a statement.

Whitmer’s original order had sought to abolish controversial rule and permit review commissions that Republicans last year wrote into state law. A revised version issued Wednesday left the panels in place pending a legal review by Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel.

House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, thanked Whitmer for “reaching out and working” with the Legislature on the new executive order, which will create the new Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy with an emphasis on clean water and combating climate change.

“We all want clean drinking water and the protection of our Great Lakes, and I’m glad we could reach a consensus,” Chatfield wrote on Twitter.

The Michigan Constitution gives the governor authority to reorganize state government, but it also gives the Legislature 60 days to reverse any executive order by majority vote. Last week’s rejection was the first of its kind since 1977 and marked the first power struggle between Whitmer and the GOP-Led Legislature. 

Senate Republicans remain concerned the new order includes multiple references to “environmental justice” without defining the phrase, but the Oversight Committee will not hold any hearings on the revised plan, said Chairman Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan.

“I think folks believe in compromise,” McBroom told The Detroit News. “The governor has compromised on the panels, and we’re going to compromise and see what environmental justice looks like to the folks who will be interpreting that.”

Senate Republicans had warned that the undefined concept of environmental justice could lead to subjective interpretations, “and if it gets to be too much of a problem, we’ll revisit it at that time,” McBroom said.

It will also establish an inter-agency environmental justice response team to advise other state departments or agencies and calls for a dedicated environmental justice advocate to field citizen complaints.

The public advocate “will be charged with investigating complaints and concerns related to environmental injustice with the goal of assuring that all Michigan residents benefit from the same protections from environmental and health hazards regardless of their geography, socioeconomic status or race,” said Whitmer spokeswoman Tiffany Brown.

“Communities of color and low-income communities are usually disproportionately impacted by environmental hazards like air pollution from heavy industry. The public advocate will also be responsible for leading the interagency environmental justice advisory group.”

Whitmer’s new order eliminates an advisory Environmental Science Advisory Board but does not abolish the more powerful rules and permit review commissions.

Republicans and business groups contend the commissions will give residents a new avenue to challenge overzealous state regulators. But Democrats and environmental groups have dubbed them "polluter panels," arguing they will give industry appointees an out-sized voice in the regulations their companies have to operate under.  

“I thought all three made sense to have, but the two most important panels are going to remain,” said Rep. James Lower, R-Cedar Lake, who sponsored the resolution to reject Whitmer’s first order but has no plans to do so with her second.

Whitmer has warned the panels could create an extra layer of bureaucracy and slow state responses to environmental threats. She has asked Nessel for a legal opinion on whether the panels conflict with federal requirements under the Clean Air and Clean Water acts.

The new order “preserves the ability for citizens to defend their rights against the overreach of bureaucracy and provides our caucus opportunity for policy development," Shirkey said. 

Republicans got advance notice of Whitmer’s new order and were able to discuss it with her before it was issued, Lower said.

“We’re trying to find ways to work together, and I think this set a good tone on how we can do that," he said.