Owosso barber aids petition drive to limit Whitmer's powers

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Karl Manke, the Owosso barber who defied Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's stay-at-home orders is helping with a new petition campaign that wants to limit her unilateral emergency powers.

Through the state's initiative process, a committee called Unlock Michigan hopes to gather 340,047 valid petition signatures to repeal a 1945 law that allows the governor to declare a state of emergency and keep it in place without input from the Legislature.

If the committee can hit the signature threshold in a 180-day period, its repeal proposal would need votes from the Republican-controlled House and Senate but not the signature of the Democratic governor to become law. 

A ballot committee called Unlock Michigan that wants to repeal a state law that gives the governor emergency powers formed on June 1, 2020.

The committee's website features a five-minute video with Manke and an explainer on how to fill out the petitions. The committee officially formed on June 1, according to Michigan Secretary of State records.

"It's a big job. And we can't do it without you. You, us and 500,000 of our closest friends are the key to unlocking Michigan," Manke says at the conclusion of the video.  "Let us never allow a governor to have the power to decide alone to lock us down again without being accountable."

Whitmer has repeatedly criticized any attempt to limit her powers while she works to combat a public health crisis. The governor has argued that measures she's implemented have helped the state make progress in its fight against COVID-19. Over the last three months, the state has moved from having the third most cases of the virus nationally to the ninth most, according to Johns Hopkins University.

"Any attempt to strip away the powers of the governor during this crisis is irresponsible, dangerous and foolish," Whitmer said during a press conference last week.

But Fred Wszolek, a Republican political consultant and spokesman for Unlock Michigan, countered that under the current reading of the law, any person could become governor and decree a state of emergency for the four-year term because of a "hailstorm."

"The Whitmer administration is going to say we don’t need politics as part of emergency management. We’ve got evidence of the need for her to listen to more voices," said Wszolek, who referenced the spread of the virus in Michigan nursing homes.

The state of emergency declaration is what gives the governor the unilateral power to issue stay-at-home orders or to close specific businesses, like gyms. Currently, there are two state laws that allow a governor to declare a state of emergency.

There's a 1976 law, the Emergency Management Act, under which the governor can declare an emergency but must get the approval of the Legislature to continue it after 28 days.

Then, there's the 1945 law, the Emergency Powers of the Governor Act, which doesn't include a timeline for the Legislature to have a say and appears to allow the governor to decide when to rescind an emergency declaration.

Unlock Michigan would leave the 1976 law in place but repeal the 1945 law.

The Republican-controlled Michigan House and Senate have challenged Whitmer's use of both laws to declare emergencies. The case is pending in the Court of Appeals after Judge Cynthia Stephens ruled in May that Whitmer had the authority to continue Michigan's state of emergency without the Legislature's approval under the 1945 law.

Two high-ranking Republicans — U.S. Rep. Paul Mitchell, R-Dryden Township, and Michigan Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake — have voiced support for potential initiative efforts to limit Whitmer's emergency powers.

Mitchell said Wednesday that he's waiting to see the results of legal challenges against Whitmer's emergency powers to determine how to move forward. The congressman said he may want to clarify what an "emergency" is under the 1976 law in addition to repealing the 1945 law.

"Sometimes, patience pays," he said.

Karl Manke, right, cuts the hair of client Mike Calhoun, of Owosso.

Mitchell's not involved with Unlock Michigan, he added.

Shirkey called a petition drive "probably the No. 1 priority" during a radio show appearance in May.

On Wednesday, the Senate leader said his focus is on the Legislature's lawsuit.

But Shirkey also said, "A citizen initiative is another legitimate tool I certainly support and am inspired by growing grassroots efforts to that end."

Wszolek said Unlock Michigan's intention is to get a proposal before the Legislature by the end of the year. The Board of State Canvassers hasn't scheduled a meeting yet to consider the group's petition language, but it could begin circulating petitions without the board's approval of the summary language on the petitions.

The committee will solicit contributions from "victims of the last shutdown" who want to avoid the next shutdown, Wszolek said. He suspects the campaign will have the resources it needs, he said.