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Michigan Senate ties unemployment aid extension to business protections

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — The Republican-controlled Michigan Senate moved Thursday to replace some of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's COVID-19 executive orders while laying the groundwork for a dispute by tying an extension of unemployment benefits to new legal protections for businesses.

The Senate tie-barred a six-week extension of the maximum length of jobless assistance, which is widely supported in Lansing, to proposals that would shield businesses from some legal claims over COVID-19 exposure. The tie-bar would essentially force Whitmer to veto both proposals or sign both.

Many Democratic lawmakers have previously opposed the immunity bills, which passed the House last month.

Sen. Curtis Hertel, D-East Lansing, said Republicans were putting "politics and games" in front of people's economic well being.

The Michigan Capitol is pictured on Tuesday. June 23, 2020.

The Senate's votes on four bills came Thursday as news broke about a plot to overthrow the government and kidnap Whitmer. They also occurred six days after the Michigan Supreme Court effectively struck down the emergency powers that the Democratic governor had been using to combat the pandemic.

The Senate-approved bills now move to the Republican-controlled state House.

Senators voted 38-0 for a proposal that would keep in place a six-week extension of unemployment benefits for those left jobless because of the virus. Whitmer had previously allowed benefits for up to 26 weeks through an executive order.

But Senate Republicans tie-barred the extension to bills to protect businesses from lawsuits stemming from COVID-19 exposure. To be protected, employers would have to operate in compliance with government regulations and orders. They wouldn't be protected if they “willfully exposed" an employee to COVID-19 "unless the employee was, at the time of the exposure, working in a health care setting.”

"The people that you represent need help now," Hertel said. "They’re not part of this political game.”

Sen. Ken Horn, R-Frankenmuth, countered that Republican lawmakers weren't playing political games but had been trying to "work together" with Whitmer for months.

One bill approved Thursday would allow local governments to continue to hold electronic meetings during the COVID-19 pandemic. It passed 36-2.

Another would bar nursing homes from caring for elderly individuals with COVID-19 unless the facilities have demonstrated the ability to provide a "designated area" for them and the "appropriate level of care." It passed 38-0.

The Senate voted as Michigan has experienced an uptick in new coronavirus cases and a day after Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist asked Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, and House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, to require masks be worn at all times within the chambers.

A few Republican senators weren't wearing masks Thursday morning while they sat at their desks talking to staff or other lawmakers nearby before the votes. The House is expected to take up the measures on Tuesday and send them to Whitmer for her consideration.

On Friday, Michigan's high court unanimously said one law the governor had used to issue the orders required the Republican-controlled Legislature's approval, which lawmakers didn't provide after April 30. Another law Whitmer had used delegated too much legislative authority to the executive branch, making it unconstitutional, the court ruled in a 4-3 decision.

The ruling threw into question more than 100 executive orders, including a requirement that Michiganians wear masks in crowded space, the creation of capacity limits inside restaurants, workplace safety standards, restrictions on public gatherings and the closure of indoor bars.

The governor's administration has begun using another law to issue new orders. That law, which has a narrower scope, allows the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services to issue orders to respond to an epidemic under the public health code.

On Monday, the department created a new mask requirement and limited gatherings. But Whitmer has acknowledged that it will take action from the Legislature to re-establish some of the policies she had previously set.

"I am here in the Capitol today. The Legislature's not," Whitmer said during a Tuesday press briefing. "That's why I am hoping they will cancel their October recess and get back to work."

As of Wednesday, Michigan had confirmed 132,039 COVID-19 cases and 6,869 deaths linked to the virus. The rate of new cases has increased in recent weeks.

cmauger@detroitnews.com