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Lansing — With lawmakers wearing masks over their noses and mouths, the Republican-controlled Michigan Senate and House voted Tuesday morning to extend Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's emergency declaration by 23 days.

The Democratic first-term governor had asked the GOP-controlled Legislature to extend by 70 days the declaration, which gives her greater power to take unilateral steps to combat the spread of COVID-19.

However, on the floor Tuesday, the Senate rejected a proposed Democratic amendment for a 70-day extension before approving a resolution that says the declaration will expire April 30, 23 days later.

The House approved the same resolution and referred to committee two other resolutions from House Democratic Leader Christine Greig, D-Farmington Hills seeking to extend Whitmer's emergency declaration by 70 days and allow lawmakers to participate remotely in House session and committees. 

The vote in the House comes after two Detroit lawmakers tested positive for COVID-19 in recent weeks and a third Detroit lawmaker, Rep. Isaac Robinson, died March 29 from a suspected COVID-19 infection. Robinson's desk was draped in black and topped with white flowers.

Republican legislative leaders seem to have set their sights next on transitioning Michigan residents back to the workplace. 

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, announced Tuesday the formation of a bipartisan work group that will work with business and medical professions to develop a guide for residents to transition safely back to work.

On Monday, House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, said during a teleconference with the Detroit Regional Chamber that the state should begin looking at how to allow some businesses that can operate safely to reopen.

“I think if we can transition to that quickly the recovery will be more smooth,” Chatfield said.

The votes proceeded the state's release of updated COVID-19 statistics, which showed the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Michigan climbed to 18,970 with 845 deaths. Michigan has the third highest number of cases and deaths of any state in the nation.

Democrats question maneuver

Concurrent resolutions, unlike legislation, do not need the governor's signature and are outlined in the Emergency Management Act as the appropriate legislative tool for extending an emergency declaration past the initial 28 days.

But the GOP-led Legislature's change from Whitmer's 70-day request, Democratic leaders argued, is unprecedented and legally questionable.

The Emergency Management Act seems to indicate that "the House and Senate are to approve or disapprove the extension for a specific number of days requested by the governor. Not some other number," House Democratic counsel Nathan Triplett wrote Tuesday on Twitter. 

Republican former Gov. Rick Snyder "requested that the Legislature extend states of emergency he had declared three times," Triplett said. "On each of those three occasions, the Legislature approved Governor Snyder’s requested extension without modification."

Greig called the vote "both legally dubious and grossly insufficient" to address the issue at hand. She also criticized the House's failure to take up her resolutions to allow for remote participation.

“The Michigan House had an opportunity to adopt rules that would allow us to meet safely and provide transparency, but that opportunity was missed when the Speaker Chatfield chose not to take action on the remote participation resolution,” she said.

The Legislature's ability to meet and become part of a response effort that has so far been exclusive to the governor's power is "vital" to Michigan residents who may be experiencing mounting discomfort with the pandemic and corresponding mitigation orders, said John Sellek, president and CEO of the Lansing-based consulting firm Harbor Strategic Public Affairs.

"The Legislature is hearing from thousands of people everyday who only know the bits of information they pull from the television. And they are either fearful or angry or both," said Sellek, a Republican and former legislative staffer. In the midst of an emergency, "there’s not much of an input point for the public, and usually the Legislature is the branch that fulfills that role.”

Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, proposed amending Shirkey's 23-day resolution to extend the emergency declaration 70 days until June 16. The Senate rejected his amendment.

"We tried to extend the state of emergency for the full 70 days as requested, but at the end of the day this shortened time frame is what was in front of us for a vote," Ananich said in a statement. "I wish the extension was longer, but we will continue to keep moving forward and doing our jobs just like millions of Americans are being asked to do."

On a Tuesday call with reporters, Whitmer said she disagreed with the Legislature's abbreviated extension, but she noted "they can come back as much as they want to even though it's contrary to all of the best practices that our medical professionals and epidemiologists are telling us."

"I do worry for their safety," she said.

A unique session

Tuesday's session was one of the most unusual in Michigan's history. Most lawmakers wore cloth masks, and visitors to the Capitol were screened for symptoms and had their temperatures taken before entering the building.

Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II presided over the Senate's session without wearing a mask, a day after Whitmer encouraged those venturing outside to wear a cloth mask. He was wearing a shirt that said, "Everybody vs. COVID-19." 

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, opened the Senate session by singing the hymn "It Is Well With My Soul."

Fourteen of the state's 38 senators weren't present for Tuesday's session, according to attendance excuses that Senate leaders requested on the floor.

All of the votes taken Tuesday were voice votes, meaning no official tallies of lawmakers' positions were taken. None of the senators made arguments on the floor about the resolution and the amendment during the Senate's 13-minute session.

The House met at the same time as the Senate and recorded attendance for 78 members for roughly three hours before its voice vote. House lawmakers were brought in one and two at a time to record their attendance with the House speaker, who was one of a few lawmakers not to wear a mask. 

While public health “is our top priority,” the full 70-day extension is “too long,” House Republicans posted on Twitter ahead of their Tuesday vote.

“What about the hundreds of thousands of Michigan residents who have lost their jobs?” the GOP caucus wrote. “What do you say to the elderly shut-ins isolated from their families and friends? We cannot ask them to abandon all hope for another 10 weeks.”

The votes occurred as some lawmakers refused to show up for session, saying they were concerned about spreading COVID-19 and as the Legislature implemented emergency safety protocols for the day.

cmauger@detroitnews.com

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