Unlock II initiative seeking to curb public health orders won't submit signatures

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

A ballot initiative that would limit the duration of public health orders in Michigan will not submit petition signatures Wednesday, ending for now a bid to rewrite public health law used extensively during the pandemic. 

A spokesman for the so-called Unlock Michigan II ballot initiative said Tuesday that organizers collected the minimum of 340,047 signatures needed to appear on the November ballot or seek passage by the GOP-led Legislature, but have fallen short of "a sufficient number of additional signatures to withstand the expected challenge by those who insist on the current rule-by-decree law."

"But we're confident of success in the next Legislature and hopeful that a new governor will join us in a reform effort," Unlock Michigan spokesman Fred Wszolek said in a statement. 

Supporters take pictures as petition signatures are delivered by Unlock Michigan to the Michigan Department of State Bureau of Elections in Lansing Friday, Oct. 2, 2020. The group is seeking to revoke Governor Gretchen Whitmer's ability to govern by emergency decree.

Unlock Michigan II would have curbed the emergency powers of the state and local health departments by limiting epidemic orders to 28 days after which public health officials would have to get an extension approval from the Legislature or local governing bodies.

Opposition group Public Health Over Politicians celebrated the initiative's defeat, arguing that the proposed language would have "hamstrung public health orders intended to save lives."

"Today’s resounding defeat of Unlock Michigan 2.0 proves that Michiganders of all stripes want public health decisions made by those with the training and expertise in public health emergencies and not partisan politicians with agendas that have nothing to do with saving lives," said Norm Hess, a member of the group and executive director for the Michigan Association of Local Public Health. 

Unlock Michigan II is one of nearly a dozen initiative petitions whose 340,047 signatures are due Wednesday in order to appear on the November ballot.

It is possible initiative petitions seeking passage by the GOP-led Legislature could submit their signatures later than Wednesday, but the state Bureau of Elections wouldn't have the same statutory deadline for reviewing the signatures ahead of the November election. It's likely the review of those signatures would come second to other statutory duties the bureau has in relation to the upcoming August primary and November general elections.

Initiatives that are due to submit signatures Wednesday include one advocating for tighter voter ID rules, Secure MI Vote; a pair of initiatives seeking to create a controversial, tax-incentivized scholarship program, called Let MI Kids Learn; a proposal seeking to increase Michigan's minimum wage, called Raise the Wage; and another pair of initiatives seeking to tighten the rules surrounding payday loans, called Michiganders for Fair Lending.

A ballot initiative seeking to set up a forensic election audit process in Michigan, called Audit MI, failed to receive approval as to form from the Board of State Canvassers and collected no signatures, spokesman John Rocha said Friday. 

Additionally, the Michigan Initiative for Community Healing, a ballot initiative aiming to decriminalize psychedelic plants and mushrooms, hopes to submit signatures later in the summer for placement on the 2024 ballot, said organizer Myc Williams.

Ballot committees collecting signatures for four separate constitutional amendments, including a petition seeking to enshrine the right to abortion in the state constitution, have until July 11 to collect the requisite 425,059. 

The latest Unlock Michigan effort came after the group in 2020 and 2021 successfully collected enough signatures to repeal the 1945 Emergency Powers of the Governor Act, which underpinned Gov. Whitmer's initial handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

The law was found to be an unconstitutional delegation of legislative power by the Michigan Supreme Court in October 2020, but Unlock's collection of signatures and the GOP-led Legislature's July 2021 passage of the ballot language removed the law from the books altogether. 

After the Michigan Supreme Court's overturning of the 1945 law, Whitmer's administration pivoted to issuing pandemic restrictions such as school and restaurant closures through state health department epidemic orders — making them the target of the Unlock Michigan II petition. 

Wszolek, a Republican political consultant, said Tuesday that state Rep. Matt Hall, R-Comstock Twp., and Sen. Aric Nesbitt, R-Lawton, have both said public health law reform will be "one of the first items on their agendas" in the new session. Hall and Nesbitt are seeking to lead their respective chambers as speaker and majority leader in the next session should Republicans maintain majorities in the state House and Senate. 

"...we’re confident that Michigan voters are ready to turn the page on the era of bureaucrats ruling by decree in the name of ‘public health,’” Wszolek said in a statement.