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Whitmer not giving up powers, says Michigan remains in a state of emergency

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing With a Legislature-approved emergency declaration granting the governor extraordinary powers set to expire Friday, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Republican lawmakers locked into a standoff over her authority Wednesday as well as how to reopen the state's economy.

The two sides feuded Wednesday over how much say lawmakers should have and whether Whitmer needs them to sign off on an extension of her increased authority amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Democratic governor took a verbal swipe at the Republican-controlled Legislature during a press conference, saying Michigan remains in a state of emergency and she doesn't intend to rescind her declaration right now.

Governor Gretchen Whitmer speaks during a news conference, Wednesday, April 29, 2020.

Whitmer says she needs the Legislature-approved extension mainly to provide additional emergency legal protections for health care workers.

“The Republicans in the Legislature want to negotiate opening up sectors of our economy," Whitmer said. "They’re acting as though we are in the midst of a political problem. This is not a political problem that we have. This is a public health crisis. This is a global pandemic."

About an hour earlier, Whitmer's office released an email from Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey's chief of staff. In it, Jeremy Hendges proposed two one-week extensions of the emergency declaration in exchange for "a public agreement that all future stay-at-home-type orders (and only those) be enacted through bipartisan legislation."

“I am completely focused on saving lives," Whitmer said. "I am not going to engage in political negotiations with anybody. We don’t have time for politics and games when people’s lives are on the line."

Republicans fired back, slamming the release of the email by Whitmer's office.

“She’s made it very clear for a number of weeks now that she’s very comfortable being a dictator,” Shirkey said during a recorded interview with the Michigan Information & Research Service (MIRS News).

Rep. Jason Sheppard, R-Temperance, said negotiations with Whitmer essentially "fell apart."

"Releasing private messages to the public and blowing up this negotiation is just the latest failure," Sheppard said of Whitmer in a statement.

Whitmer has previously asked lawmakers to extend her emergency declaration by 28 days. On April 7, the Legislature extended it 23 days through Thursday.

Without action, the declaration, which is different than specific orders like her stay-at-home order, would expire Friday. However, the impact of that expiration varies depending on whom is asked.

Republicans point to the 1976 Emergency Management Act, which gives the governor emergency powers but also requires the Legislature's approval after an emergency declaration has been in effect for 28 days.

Democrats point to a 1945 law that allows the governor to declare a state of emergency and have emergency powers but doesn't include the 28-day deadline. The 1945 law suggests a governor can declare when an emergency no longer exists.

"We remain in a state of emergency," Whitmer said Wednesday. "I don’t know of any other Legislature in the country that is just deciding to declare that the global pandemic ... is over. It is not over.

"We remain in a state of emergency until the order is rescinded. And I do not have any intention of rescinding that right now."

The 1976 law does provide special legal protections for health care workers and first responders, which Whitmer has pointed to as a reason the Legislature should extend the state of emergency.

"The emergency powers that I have as governor do not depend on an extension from the Legislature," Whitmer said Monday. "But the protections for our health care workers do. ... It’s better for everyone if we work together to get this right."

Both the Michigan House and Senate are expected to be in session Thursday. Some Republicans say they are willing to negotiate a shorter extension but don't support 28 days.

Gideon D'Assandro, a spokesman for House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, said thousands of people have reached out to House members because "they've been hurt by executive orders that go too far and make unfair one-size-fits-all decisions."

"The people who have been unfairly hurt by these constantly changing orders deserve better," D'Assandro said. "The House will be back tomorrow to continue negotiating for common-sense changes to help families who are struggling during this pandemic."

In emails released by the governor's office, her team rejected Shirkey's idea of two one-week extensions of the declaration in exchange for "a public agreement that all future stay-at-home-type orders (and only those) be enacted through bipartisan legislation."

Jennifer Flood, who works in legislative affairs for Whitmer, responded, dismissing the offer and sharing a statement from the governor.

"While I welcome partnership, information sharing and robust discussion with the legislature, I cannot abrogate my duty to act in an emergency to protect the lives of Michiganders," the statement said. "We are in the midst of a global pandemic that has already killed 3,670 people and COVID-19 numbers continue to climb in parts of our state. Michigan remains in a state of emergency regardless of the actions you decide to take or not take."

Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, said the Senate was in session for six hours Wednesday without taking "one action to help one person."

"Everyone in this state seems to be taking COVID-19 seriously except for legislative Republicans," Ananich said.

Many of the disagreements between GOP lawmakers and Whitmer have focused on how quickly to begin reopening sectors of Michigan's economy.

The governor has begun outlining her plans for reopening the state's economy in recent days, but Republicans want moves made more quickly.

On Tuesday, the Senate formally urged Whitmer to expand the number of people who can go to work during the COVID-19 pandemic and allow elective procedures in hospitals.

Last week, Whitmer permitted lawn services, garden shops, landscapers and nurseries to begin operating again as long as they follow "enhanced" social-distancing rules.

Earlier Wednesday, her office confirmed a report that she will allow the construction industry to return to work on May 7.

Michigan's coronavirus death toll reached 3,670 on Wednesday.

Michigan is making "progress" in combating COVID-19 but is still in the early months of fighting this virus, the state's chief medical executive, said Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state's chief medical executive, on Wednesday.

"We can beat this disease, but it will really be a long-term effort that will likely go well into next year until we have a vaccine or hopefully an anti-viral treatment that works," Khaldun said.

cmauger@detroitnews.com