GOP lawmakers plan oversight panel, action on bills to cut Whitmer's emergency powers

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

The Michigan GOP-led House and Senate will hold a special session Friday with the intent of forming an oversight committee to assess Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's handling to the coronavirus pandemic in Michigan. 

The Senate also plans to take action on bills that would limit the governor's emergency authority, said Amber Cann, spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake. 

Lawmakers last week introduced bills in the House and Senate that would curb two laws under which Whitmer has been issuing executive orders during the pandemic. Whitmer has signaled she would veto the legislation. 

More than 4,000 protesters paraded in cars and on foot around the Michigan Capitol in Lansing last week to demonstrate against what they argue is governmental overreach in the banning of certain commercial and personal activities.  

The rally occurred nearly a week after Whitmer issued an extended and more restrictive stay-home executive order that required stores to cordon off areas deemed non-essential — such as garden and home improvement zones — and banned people from traveling between vacation homes. The order also prohibited motorized boating.

Her order also does not include updated guidance from the federal government that would have allowed more people in certain professions to work during the crisis.

The House plans to pass a resolution to form a bicameral, bipartisan committee consisting of five House members and five senators. Session will begin at 10 a.m.

"Michigan needs to handle this pandemic seriously yet properly. It’s what the people deserve, and we will see that it happens," House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, tweeted Thursday.

Michigan House of Representatives, 2018.

The Senate also "plans to pass the resolution," McCann said.

The committee is similar to what was put in place to examine Republican former Gov. Rick Snyder's actions during the Flint water crisis, said Gideon D'Assandro, a Chatfield spokesman.

House Democratic Leader Christine Greig said she was disappointed in the last-minute nature of the session. She said she received a text saying the speaker wanted to speak, but didn't hear about the session until after Chatfield sent a tweet announcing it. 

The Farmington Hills Democrat said she knew little about the proposed committee. 

"I need to know more about it," Greig said. "The fact that it was announced via tweet really raises concerns that this is all about politics.”

The only reason lawmakers should meet is to approve the governor's orders, Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich said.  

"Republicans should save their stunts for a time when Michiganders’ lives aren’t on the line," the Flint Democrat said. "The last thing Michigan needs is a bunch of senators in a room congregating, risking exposure and potentially taking the virus back to their constituents and communities.” 

Precautions similar to the Legislature's April 7 session — such as symptom and temperature screenings — will be taken Friday, D'Assandro said.

But the House will make a few changes to the "overly cautious" spacing of House members as attendance is recorded, D'Assandro said. The process took more than two hours on April 7 as lawmakers entered the room one by one.  

Unlike the Senate, the House does not plan to take up any additional legislation.

The legislation that will be considered by the Senate Friday would shorten the window under which a governor could declare a state of emergency under the Emergency Management Act from 28 days to 14 and allow police to issue a civil fine for violation of an executive order instead of a misdemeanor penalty. 

The penalty for a misdemeanor is a $500 fine and/or 90 days in jail but the legislation would limit a civil infraction fine to $250.

Bills introduced by Republican Sen. Tom Barrett of Charlotte would repeal a separate governor's emergency powers act from 1945 that Whitmer has cited in her emergency declarations and is relying on to do a planned short-term extension of her stay home order that is scheduled to expire April 30.

Two other bills from Barrett would amend the 1945 law and the Emergency Management Act to prohibit the governor from banning during an emergency "the sale or purchase of firearms, ammunition, or other weapons."

Republicans on Wednesday criticized the governor and demanded more details on a cancelled contract with two Democratic firms to help with outreach and data management associated with the state's coronavirus contact tracing project. 

One of the original contracted companies is run by a Democratic consultant who said a month ago on Facebook that he hoped President Donald Trump would get "coronavirus ASAP."

Whitmer wouldn't say Wednesday who within the state health department approved the contract. Similarly, her Department of Health and Human Services has yet to say who approved the contract.