Battle looms as board OKs petition to strip Michigan governor's emergency powers

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — A fledgling political group opened a new front in the battle to limit Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's emergency powers Monday as it got the go-ahead to circulate petitions aiming to repeal the law that gives her broad authority in a crisis.

The Board of State Canvassers signed off on summary petition language from the group, tied to Republican consultants, that wants to repeal the 1945 law that grants governors the power to take actions without the Legislature's approval during declared emergencies.

Unlock Michigan now must collect 340,047 valid petition signatures in 180 days to put its initiated legislative proposal to repeal the Emergency Powers of Governor Act before the Republican-controlled Michigan Legislature, which has challenged the emergency powers of Whitmer, a Democrat, in court.

An example of Unlock Michigan's proposed petitions for repealing a 1945 law that gives governors the ability to take unilateral actions under declared states of emergency.

If the Legislature approves the repeal, Whitmer wouldn't be able to veto it. Two high-ranking Republicans — U.S. Rep. Paul Mitchell of Dryden Township and Michigan Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey of Clarklake — have voiced support for potential initiative efforts to limit Whitmer's emergency powers.

The board's 4-0 vote was a procedural step that committees often go through before circulating petitions. Unlock Michigan plans to begin circulating petitions later this week, said group spokesman Fred Wszolek, a Republican political consultant.

"Off we go," Wszolek said after the vote. "Coming soon to a street corner near you."

Unlock Michigan will likely have grassroots support along with they necessary money provided by "motivated folks in the business world," said John Sellek, a political consultant who's previously worked with Republicans.

Democrats appear to be taking the Unlock Michigan effort more seriously than grassroots efforts to recall the governor. The Michigan Democratic Party released a Monday statement that argued Unlock Michigan's proposal would "have disastrous effects on our efforts to save lives and the economy and impact the governor’s ability to fight back against a possible second wave of COVID-19."

On Friday, a ballot committee named Keep Michigan Safe formed, according to state campaign finance records. The committee listed a mailing address in Lansing and Dr. Joe Schwarz, a political independent who served on Whitmer's transition team, as treasurer.

Schwarz, a former Republican U.S. House member from Battle Creek, declined Monday to discuss the committee's efforts.

Whitmer has criticized any attempt to limit her powers while she works to combat the COVID-19 public health crisis. The governor has argued that her measures have helped the state make progress in its fight against the virus.

In the past couple of months, Michigan has gone from third nationally for cases and deaths linked to COVID-19 to 12th for cases and seventh for deaths, according to tracking by 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 month.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer gives her morning coronavirus pandemic address via livestream on Monday, April 13, 2020.

But Wszolek has previously countered that under the current reading of the 1945 law, any person could become governor and decree a state of emergency for the four-year term because of a "hailstorm."

The state of emergency declaration is what gives the governor the unilateral power to issue stay-at-home orders or close specific businesses, such as gyms, restaurants or bars. Currently, there are two state laws that allow a governor to declare a state of emergency and take actions under them.

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 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 state Court of Appeals after Court of Claims 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.

Wszolek has previously said Unlock Michigan's intention is to get a proposal before the Legislature by the end of the year. The group won't have to begin revealing information about its funders until later this month.

"While it may take much of the 180 days to collect the signatures in a social distancing era, the timing of when it is submitted to the Legislature for a vote may be an indication of the issues' importance in the elections," said Sellek, CEO of Harbor Strategic Public Affairs in Lansing.