Senate backs bill repealing Whitmer's powers; oversight panel created for gov

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — After more than an hour of heated debate Friday, the GOP-led Senate voted along party lines to approve a bill limiting the emergency powers of the governor, reflecting Republican frustration with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's unilateral edicts during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Whitmer has promised a veto if the House approves the legislation and sends it to her desk. The GOP irritation is likely to continue playing out next week when the Legislature considers whether to extend Whitmer’s emergency declaration beyond April 30. 

The GOP-majority Legislature maintains their extension is the only tool the governor has to ensure her Stay Home, Stay Safe executive order remains in place through May 15. The governor’s office says it can extend that order with or without the Legislature’s approval. 

The warring interpretations of Michigan's emergency management laws are likely to end in negotiation or court.

“We doubt the lawmakers who drafted the law decades ago intended for it to be used to suspend our liberties,” Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, said after Friday’s session. 

"We expect government to have the tools necessary to act in times of crisis, but changes to the current law are needed to ensure we do not vest too much power in the hands of a single individual and leave no room for balance or input from our citizens," Shirkey said in a statement.

The proposed changes to the state’s emergency management laws came as both chambers approved Friday a resolution creating an oversight committee on Whitmer's response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The committee was created to address the concerns of residents who "deserve answers" from state officials about decisions made during the pandemic, said Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering. 

"The state’s response must be transparent, and we all have to work together to hold state government to higher standards for its actions and choices," Chatfield said. "The House is taking action today to deliver that transparency and help guide the way for better results.”

The formations of an oversight committee passed by voice vote in the House and along party lines in the Senate, where a heated argument ensued over the legislation that would curb the governor's emergency powers.

The legislation passed by the Senate would shorten the window under which a governor could declare a state of emergency under the Emergency Management Act from 28 days to 14 and repeal the governor's emergency powers act from 1945 completely. Whitmer has vowed to veto the bills.

Whitmer said at a Friday news conference she will not sign bills that take any power from herself or future governors. 

"The political conversation that is happening in the Capitol right now is not something I’m spending a lot of energy on," she said. "...I find it odd that the Legislature has chosen to congregate against all best practices."

Whitmer can't block the creation of the oversight committee because it was approved by resolution, which does not require the governor's signature. 

Senators debate legislation

Democratic senators criticized the legislation by Sen. Tom Barrett, R-Charlotte, calling it a political stunt that unfairly checked the emergency powers of the governor and needlessly gathered senators in the middle of a pandemic. 

The bills limiting the governor's powers passed along party lines 22-15.

"If we're going to be called back into session in the middle of a pandemic..., we ought to at least be doing something productive instead of scoring political points," said Sen. Jeremy Moss, D-Southfield.

Protests against the session and consideration of the legislation are "anathema to the oaths we have all taken," said Sen. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan.The issue is not a one-dimensional political fight, he said. 

"This is way more complex than that and we the people who have been charged by the people of this state to speak for them need to speak," McBroom said.

Hertel called the proposal a political stunt that, knowing the governor's veto is inevitable, endangered lives needlessly. 

"I don’t want to hear another damn thing about the sanctity of life from the other side of the aisle again," Hertel said. "Apparently life is sacred unless it stops the almighty dollar or your golf game."

Barrett fired back that Democratic senators were framing the proposals as a false choice between public health and good government. 

"We both can grieve for the loss of life and still protect our system of government," Barrett said. "Those two are not mutually exclusive."

Pandemic committee

The Joint Select Committee on COVID-19 Pandemic will have subpoena power to acquire records from any state department, institution, board or agency, the resolution said.

The subpoena power will allow legislators to call in government officials to testify or get records that might be a disputed exemption under public records laws. But it will not give the Legislature authority to subpoena private individuals, said Gideon D'Assandro, a spokesman for House Republicans. 

“…the joint select committee shall examine the status and efficacy of governmental actions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in Michigan,” the resolutions said. “The joint select committee shall report to the Legislature a summary of its findings and conclusions, as well as any recommendations on further appropriate actions the Legislature may take to address the COVID-19 pandemic and to prevent or prepare for similar emergencies in the state."

The committee will be made up of two House Democratic members, three House Republicans, two Democratic senators and three Republican senators, giving the GOP a 6-4 edge that recognizes the party holds the majority.

Reps. Matt Hall, R-Marshall; Julie Calley, R-Portland; Tyrone Carter, D-Detroit; Vanessa Guerra, D-Saginaw; and Jack O'Malley, R-Lake Ann will serve on the committee. The five senators will be Sens.  Aric Nesbitt, R-Lawton; Sen. Kim LaSata, R-St. Joseph; Sen. Wayne Schmidt, R-Traverse City; Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr., D-East Lansing; and Sen. Adam Hollier, D-Detroit. 

House Minority Leader Christine Greig, D-Farmington Hills, criticized the creation of the committee, calling it "political theater" and arguing that Whitmer's actions have been undertaken "legally and righteously to keep Michiganders safe and healthy."

"It is not being called back to session that I oppose today," Greig said Friday. "I oppose the hollow, partisan resolution that we were called back to vote on.”

Attempt to curb powers

Session started roughly an hour before the governor announced extending stay-home order with some changes through May 15. 

Michigan state senators voted Tuesday to extend for 23 days Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's state of emergency prompted by the spread of the coronavirus. April 7, 2020

Republican legislators have argued the governor needs their approval to extend the stay home order under the 1976 Emergency Management Act, but legal advisers have argued that a 1945 law allows her to extend it unilaterally. Critics have contended the 1945 law only applies to riots. 

Whitmer would need an extension from the Legislature, however, to extend liability protections for health care workers since that provision falls under the Emergency Management Act. 

Barrett also has introduced other legislation to curb Whitmer's powers but that is not expected to be considered Friday. 

Those bills would amend the 1945 law and the Emergency Management Act to prohibit the governor from banning during an emergency "the sale or purchase of firearms, ammunition, or other weapons."

The legislation also would allow police to issue a civil fine for violation of an executive order instead of a misdemeanor penalty. 

The penalty for a misdemeanor is a $500 fine and/or 90 days in jail but the legislation would limit a civil infraction fine to $250.