Legislature reaches deal with Whitmer on COVID-19, budget decisions

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — Republican legislative leaders and Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said Thursday they had reached a deal that would restore some balance to the branches of government after months of disagreements on pandemic restrictions, budget priorities and executive authority. 

Under the plan, the Legislature expects to get a voice in discussions over future pandemic orders. The plan also requires the withdrawal of permanent workplace rules in addition to the broader rollback on gatherings Whitmer announced Thursday.

In return, Whitmer's budget negotiators would be able to participate in budget talks with the Legislature, and House and Senate Republicans would "make a show of good faith on one of the governor's priorities," House Speaker Jason Wentworth said Thursday. 

“The critical issues facing our state are simply too big and are hurting too many people for us to waste any more time," said Wentworth, R-Farwell. "The people we represent are tired of disagreement and just want results. This agreement is a good first step in getting us to that point.”

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer with Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II, behind her, acknowledges some guests during the State of the State address at the Capitol Building in Lansing on Jan. 29, 2020.  She is flanked by Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, left, and Speaker of the House Lee Chatfield, right.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, celebrated Whitmer's agreement to pull back permanent workplace rules from the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration and make a "permanent pathway" for the Legislature to have input on orders in future epidemics. 

"These MIOSHA rules were a foolish political game that should have ended the minute the CDC updated its guidelines," Shirkey said. "I see it as a positive for Michigan that with each passing day the governor draws closer to reason in her handling of COVID."

Whitmer's office described the agreement as one in which her office would "fully negotiate" budgets with the Legislature and withdraw permanent workplace rules. All parties would "have a conversation about formalizing legislative input on epidemic orders," the statement said. 

“Today’s bipartisan framework shows how we can unite around investing in our schools, small businesses and communities to help them thrive," Whitmer said in a statement. "I look forward to working with the Legislature to invest the billions in federal resources sent to us by both the Trump and Biden administrations and pass a budget that makes lasting investments in our shared priorities."

The announcement came the same day Whitmer announced all outdoor gathering restrictions would be lifted and indoor capacity expanded to 50% starting June 1. The state's remaining broad mask and gathering limitations will be lifted July 1. 

Last week, Whitmer brought the state in line with federal guidance when she lifted indoor mask mandates for fully vaccinated people. 

While tense prior to the pandemic, the relationship between the GOP-led Legislature and the Democratic governor imploded last spring over disagreements regarding the continuation of emergency orders to stem the spread of COVID-19. 

The Legislature sued Whitmer when she extended the state of emergency past April 30, 2020, without the approval of lawmakers. 

On Oct. 2, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled on a separate but similar case and found Whitmer's executive authority under the 1945 Emergency Powers of the Governor Act was an unconstitutional delegation of legislative authority. It also found she violated a 1976 law by extending her emergency past April 30 without the Legislature's approval.

After the Supreme Court ruling, Whitmer used the Department of Health and Human Services to issue separate but similar epidemic orders.

In recent months, the Legislature has been tying billions of dollars in federal COVID-19 relief to various restrictions on the department's epidemic powers and other requirements.