Whitmer revamps environmental order after GOP rejection

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
Governor Gretchen Whitmer delivers her State of the State speech to a combined chamber Tuesday evening, February 12, 2019, in the House of Representatives at the Capitol in Lansing.

Lansing — Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Wednesday signed a new executive order to reorganize Michigan’s environmental department, removing two provisions that prompted the Republican-led Legislature to reject an earlier version.

The order, which the Legislature will have another 60 days to consider, would again create the new Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy with an emphasis on clean water and combating climate change. But the edict still does not appear to define "environmental justice," a concern some Republicans had with the prior order. 

The GOP-led Legislature last week voted down Whitmer’s initial executive order because it would have eliminated panels lawmakers created last year to oversee environmental rule-making and permit application processes.

The new version eliminates an advisory Environmental Science Advisory Board but retains the more powerful rules and permit review commissions — at least for now.

Whitmer has warned the added layer of bureaucracy could slow state responses to environmental threats and previously asked Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel for a legal opinion on whether the panels conflict with federal requirements under the Clean Air and Clean Water acts.

“Every Michigander deserves safe, clean drinking water, and I’m not going to let partisan politics slow down the important work that needs to get done right now to protect public health,” Whitmer said in a statement. “That’s why I’m taking action to sign this new executive order so we can start cleaning up our drinking water, protect the Great Lakes, and take action to address climate change.”

The Michigan Constitution gives the governor authority to reorganize state government, but it also gives the Legislature 60 days to reverse any executive order by majority vote. Last week’s rejection was the first of its kind since 1977.

The rare move marked the first power struggle between Whitmer and the Legislature following weeks of bipartisan platitudes at the onset of a new era of divided government. Democrats won election to top statewide seats in November, but the GOP retained control of the state House and Senate.

Whitmer could have withdrawn her order to avoid rejection, as past governors have done, but instead forced Republicans to vote it down.

Mary Brady-Enerson, Michigan director for the Clean Water Action environmental group, praised Whitmer’s new order an hour before it was officially announced and accused Republicans of trying to "play politics with our drinking water." 

The new order will "accomplish many of the same goals" as the original," Brady-Enerson said. New public advocate positions for clean water and environmental justice “will give thousands of Michigan residents who can’t currently drink the water coming from their taps a place to turn and a louder voice in state government,”

State Rep. Beth Griffin, R-Mattawan, on Tuesday introduced a resolution urging Whitmer to submit a new executive order without language in the original that had “sought to abolish legislatively created entities in a manner inconsistent with the intention of the Legislature.”

Despite the initial rejection, “the Legislature is committed to safeguarding the health and safety of Michigan's citizens and families by protecting the environment and improving access to safe, clean drinking water,” the resolution said.

House leadership opted against voting on the resolution Wednesday after productive discussions between Whitmer and Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, said spokesman Gideon D’Assandro.

Republicans and business groups contend the rules and permit panels will give citizens a new avenue to challenge overzealous state regulators. But Democrats and environmental groups have dubbed them "polluter panels," arguing they will give industry appointees an out-sized voice in the regulations their companies have to operate under.  

Whitmer's first executive order "went too far," said Rep. James Lower, a Cedar Lake Republican who sponsored the resolution to overturn it. "She gave us no choice but to reject it. Now that all parties are at the table, including those affected by environmental regulations, I’m confident we can find a lot of common ground"

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, had defended the oversight panels and urged Whitmer to define the term “environmental justice” in her environmental order, which a Senate committee had warned could lead to subjective interpretations.

“If we can get that done, I don’t think there will be too much trouble getting her reorganization executive order completed,” Shirkey said earlier Wednesday.

But the new order does not appear to define environmental justice, setting up another potential flash point with Senate Republicans. The order would create an inter-agency environmental justice response team to advise state departments and agencies. It would also create a new environmental justice advocate position to field citizen complaints.

Still, Shirkey “sincerely appreciates the governor's willingness to present a different option for reorganization,” spokeswoman Amber McCann told The Detroit News. “The Senate will consider the order and review the details through the committee process.”

Former Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, used an executive directive to create an environmental justice work group in response to the Flint water contamination crisis. Unlike orders, the Legislature does not have the authority to review directives.

Michigan Environmental Department Director Liesl Clark said Tuesday she would be happy to discuss the concept of environmental justice with lawmakers seeking further clarity.

“Environmental justice in my mind is two things,” Clark said. “One is we get to better solutions if we have more voices at the table, and there are voices that haven’t always been routinely asked to the table. The other part of it to me is making sure that we’re including folks from across the state from a geographical representation.”

The Legislature's decision to reject the initial executive order did not pose major logistical challenges for the department, Clark said Tuesday.

The legislative action was about everybody kind of figuring out how they work together,” she said. ”I know that the governor is committed to protecting the environment and public health, as is the department. We’ll organize around those priorities and look forward to working with the Legislature to accomplish them.”

The new environmental department would incorporate an existing Office of the Great Lakes that had been housed in the Department of Natural Resources and create a new Office of Climate and Energy that would swallow the former Agency for Energy.  

Under a separate executive directive from Whitmer that lawmakers cannot challenge, Michigan joined the U.S. Climate Alliance, a coalition of governors from 19 other states who have committed to fighting climate change after the Trump administration withdrew the United States from the international Paris Agreement.

Former President Barack Obama’s administration had pledged to cut U.S. emissions up to 28 percent by 2025.

The new Michigan Office of Climate and Energy would be tasked with coordinating a “climate response” by state departments and providing mitigation recommendations to state and local units of government. It would also provide guidance and assistance for reducing greenhouse gas emissions while increasing renewable energy and efficiency.

Environmental groups praised Whitmer for the new environmental order. 

"We urge the state Legislature to support this common-sense reorganization that puts public health first and not quibble over unnecessary layers of bureaucracy that will only delay, block or slow down real contamination clean up efforts," said Lisa Wozniak, executive director at the Michigan League of Conservation Voters.