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Shirkey: Petition drive to limit gov's emergency powers 'No. 1 priority'

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey backed the idea of a petition drive to limit Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's emergency powers during a radio interview Monday.

"I think it’s probably the No. 1 priority right now," Shirkey said in response to a question during an appearance on the "Your Defending Fathers" show. "That allows true representative government ... to take over."

Michigan Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, talks to protesters in the Senate gallery on Thursday, April 30, 2020.

The state Republican Party rallied around Shirkey's suggestion, but House Speaker Lee Chatfield indicated it would not be an immediate priority for him. Shirkey's comments also drew criticism from Democrats.

"We're working on solutions, and they're playing politics," said Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint. "It's as basic as that."

Shirkey, R-Clarklake, was asked about the possibility of a citizen-led petition to change the 1945 law that apparentlyallows the governor to use emergency powers without the approval of the Legislature and decide when the emergency ends without legislative approval. Whitmer has used the 1945 law to fight the novel coronavirus and has cited it in arguing that she doesn't and shouldn't have to negotiate an end to a public health crisis.

Such a petition drive would require more than 340,000 signatures but could allow for a policy change to be enacted through the Legislature without the governor's support. The effort would essentially provide a path around the Democratic governor, but such petition drives usually take up to six months to gather the signatures required.

“I would look forward to starting that process, which I hope we do within the next couple weeks," Shirkey said. Monday.

In a statement, Michigan Republican Party Chairwoman Laura Cox said the party stands with Shirkey "as he explores ways in which we can reassert the will of the people and their elected representatives."

Taking a different tone, Chatfield, R-Levering, said such a petition drive "could be a useful idea for the future, but my current priority is focusing on keeping people healthy and helping everyone get back to their lives as safely and quickly as possible."

"I think the law is already clear that she doesn't have the powers she's claiming to have," Chatfield added.

Supporters of repealing Michigan's prevailing wage law, which set pay standards for public construction projects, used a similar strategy to get around Republican Gov. Rick Snyder's opposition in 2018.

Asked about the chances of a petition drive to limit Whitmer's powers being successful, Adrian Hemond, CEO of the consulting firm Grassroots Midwest, said with a laugh, "Good luck."

The current stay-at-home requirements would make it difficult to gather signatures unless the state allowed electronic signing, said Hemond, who worked for Democrats in the Legislature. Hemond also said he believes there's large support for Whitmer's actions.

"Given the way the governor is polling, that sounds like a martyrdom operation," he said. "It doesn’t sound politically all that wise.”

During the Monday interview, Shirkey also said a lawsuit by the Republican-led Legislature against Democrat Whitmer's emergency powers would "probably" come next week.

“I don’t see us filing a court case this week," he added.

The comments came four days after the Legislature approved resolutions Thursday, allowing Shirkey and Chatfield to file lawsuits challenging Whitmer's emergency powers in court.

The Legislature and Whitmer continue to feud over her powers to act unilaterally to combat COVID-19.

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

The Legislature declined to provide an extension on Thursday, so in Republican lawmakers' minds, the declaration expired Friday.

However, Whitmer issued a new declaration under the 1976 law on Thursday night, extending the emergency to May 28.

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

The emergency declaration allows Whitmer to take actions unilaterally, such as issuing her stay-at-home orders.

During the Monday interview, Shirkey said he's not recommending "people ignore the governor’s executive orders."

As of Sunday, Michigan had 43,754 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus and 4,049 deaths linked to it.

cmauger@detroitnews.com