Unlock Michigan to launch second petition to limit public health orders

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Unlock Michigan will launch a second petition initiative seeking to curb the emergency powers of the state health department after the state has been under the department's epidemic orders for more than eight months. 

The group plans to submit language to the Bureau of Elections for approval as to form as soon as Tuesday, said Fred Wszolek, a spokesman for Unlock Michigan. 

The initiative would change the public health code to limit epidemic orders to 28 days, after which public health officials would need the approval of an extension from the Legislature or local governing bodies. 

Unlock Michigan leaders submitted a reported 539,384 petition signatures to overturn a 1945 emergency power law that allowed Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to govern during the COVID-19 pandemic by emergency decree. It is pursuing a new initiative to put limits on public health epidemic orders.

"We’re assuming that there’s a majority in the Legislature as frustrated as we are that the governor is finding every way possible not to govern as she should,” Wszolek said. 

The new initiative comes as the Board of State Canvassers, under court order, is poised to certify an Unlock Michigan initiative that would repeal the 1945 Emergency Powers of the Governor Act. After certification, the initiative is expected to be adopted by the Michigan Legislature rather than be submitted to voters for approval. 

The new proposal "finishes the job" that supporters sought to accomplish with the initial proposal seeking to limit unilateral control of the state, Wszolek said. 

He expects to have similar levels of enthusiasm for the new proposal from people angered by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's use of the public health epidemic orders "to go around" the intent of a high court order overturning the governor's emergency authority. Residents also are frustrated by Whitmer's "ignoring her own orders" with a May bar gathering, Wszolek said. 

The Michigan Supreme Court ruled 4-3 to overturn the 1945 emergency powers law but did not comment about overruling any existing parts of the public health code. 

This time around, without state limits on outdoor events, Unlock Michigan will have festivals, fairs and parades where they can circulate the petition for signatures. 

"We want to do it before the end of the year, at least for our part," Wszolek said. "We have no control over the Bureau of Elections nor the rogue board of state canvassers.”

For the first several months of the pandemic, Whitmer issued executive orders curbing activity in the state under both the 1945 Emergency Powers of the Governor Act and the 1976 Emergency Management Act. 

The 1976 act required Whitmer to get approval from the Legislature in order to extend her emergency powers after an initial 28 days. 

When the Legislature refused to extend Whitmer's emergency authority past April 30, 2020, Whitmer was sued in state and federal courts by people opposing her executive orders and challenging the constitutionality of both the 1945 and 1976 laws.

In July, Unlock Michigan launched a petition initiative to repeal the 1945 act. 

On Oct. 2, the Michigan Supreme Court unanimously ruled that Whitmer's orders under the 1976 act were unconstitutional because the Legislature had declined to extend them. They split along party lines 4-3 in ruling that the 1945 law was unconstitutional because it was an unconstitutional delegation of legislative power. 

The ruling came the same day Unlock Michigan submitted about 539,000 signatures to the Bureau of Elections to repeal the 1945 law. It was required to gather about 340,000 signatures. 

After the Oct. 2 ruling, Whitmer began to use emergency authority under the public health code to issue epidemic orders similar to those issued under her emergency authority. 

Epidemic orders governing gathering sizes and mask usage remain in place today, more than eight months after they were put in place, but are expected to be largely eliminated by July 1.