Whitmer calls Legislature's actions 'reckless,' says she won't cede emergency authority

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said she will not cede her administration's emergency power to respond to the pandemic despite demands from the Legislature that she make COVID-19 policy decisions in collaboration with lawmakers. 

The comments to media came the morning after Whitmer focused her State of the State address on bipartisanship and an effort to find common ground.

Earlier Wednesday, the GOP-led Senate blocked some of the Democratic governor's appointments and the Republican-majority House introduced an education funding bill tied to conditions that moved authority over school closures and student sports away from the governor and to local health officials.

Whitmer called the Legislature's actions "reckless."

"I can’t cede executive authority that was given to this office by the Legislature to act in circumstances like these," Whitmer said Thursday. "I've never been able to understand why they think that's something that makes sense.

"The chief executive has to be nimble and quick when lives are on the line."

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer

The legislative challenges to Whitmer's emergency authority, which she has used to issue dozens of COVID-related orders, have been ongoing in the months since the pandemic began in March. The GOP-led Legislature refused to extend the governor's emergency authority past April 30 last year then brought its case to court. 

In early October, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled that the law underpinning Whitmer's emergency authority was an unconstitutional delegation of legislative power, a ruling that struck down Whitmer's executive orders from April 30 onward. 

After Oct. 2, the governor began issuing similar epidemic orders through the Department of Health and Human Services that have largely mirrored her earlier orders and have so far stood up to court scrutiny. 

The legislative challenges in Michigan are similar to what governors across the nation face, she said. But she argued the executive emergency measures were necessary, noting the Michigan Legislature's continued opposition to a mask mandate.

"Governors have had to lean in and use unique powers that none of us want to use, by the way, but have to use to keep people safe," Whitmer said. "Legislatures across the country are mad at their governors."

Whitmer also argued that legislative leaders had been invited to data and modeling meetings to better understand the course of the virus in Michigan but hadn't attended. 

"It's really hard to have a thoughtful conversation about the work that we need to do as a state to keep people safe if we're not operating off of facts," she said. Whitmer's office clarified later Thursday that Republican leadership's attendance at data and modeling meetings had been "hit or miss." 

Outside of meetings of the quadrant or Republican and Democratic legislative leaders, invites from the governor's office have been centered on "presentations" instead of "conversations," said Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake. 

"You can’t govern, you can’t acknowledge input from others, by doing one-way, one-sided presentations," Shirkey said Thursday. "It requires a conversation.”

Republican lawmakers have participated in state Department of Health and Human Services briefings on the virus, Shirkey and House Speaker Jason Wentworth, R-Farwell, said. 

The data and modeling meetings differ from those held by the Department of Health and Human Services, Whitmer spokeswoman Chelsea Parisio. Instead, they are a weekly briefing Whitmer receives from public health experts on COVID-19 case trends and modeling and potential policy interventions.

"Gov. Whitmer will continue to invite legislators to these calls, as it’s more important than ever to work together to combat our common enemy, COVID-19," Parisio said. 

When asked why her administration failed to give precise metrics for closure and reopening decisions, Whitmer noted that metric benchmarks lacked context needed to make those decisions. For example, she said, a region's positivity rate may be low, but if the majority of cases were a particular variant that spreads quickly, the low rate may be less assuring. 

"Every state that’s done that has had to change them along the way or had to acknowledge that context matters,” she said. "And that's why we've been reticent to adopt that because we're trying to avoid the mistake that many other states have made."

Whitmer said she hopes the focus shifts forward in the coming weeks and argued that was why she emphasized bipartisanship in Wednesday's address. 

"We can’t dwell in this space," she said. "We have to find common ground on these things.”