Michigan Senate authorizes lawsuit against Whitmer over relief dollars

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — The Republican-controlled Michigan Senate authorized Thursday a lawsuit against Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, setting up a potential legal fight over millions of dollars in COVID-19 relief funds tied to limits on the administration's power.

The dispute focuses on two policy bills the Legislature connected to a portion of the funds in its $4 billion COVID-19 relief plan​​. The proposals would limit the state Department of Health and Human Services' epidemic orders to 28 days and shift decisions on school closures from the state department to local health agencies. Whitmer opposes the bills.

If Whitmer's administration spends the money tied to the bills but blocks the limits on her power, it "would be contrary to both law and Michigan’s constitutional system," said a resolution approved Thursday in a party-line vote by the Senate.

It's currently unclear whether the governor will interpret state law in a way that allows her to reject the legislation and still distribute the dollars. If she does, a lawsuit from Republicans in the Legislature could follow.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey.

Whitmer's spokesman Bobby Leddy said it "defies common sense that the Legislature would try to block money from going to schools to help children learn in-person safely."

"Gov. Whitmer will do everything she can to ensure that funding is available to families, small businesses, schools and communities across the state because we can’t afford to wait," Leddy said.

The Democratic governor exercised four line-item vetoes within the supplemental budget bills because they weren't negotiated by Republican legislative leaders. The vetoes included $405 million in business tax relief, $87 million for private schools, $150 million into the state unemployment compensation fund and $10 million to aid parents who enroll their kids in summer school. 

The Senate resolution, introduced by Sen. Jim Stamas, R-Midland, allows Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, to commence legal action defending the constitutionality of the two bills.

During a speech, Shirkey said Michiganians are "begging" for direction on what they must do so COVID-19 restrictions imposed by Whitmer's administration will be lifted.

"The people of Michigan know what to do. They know what to do. They're just waiting to be informed, inspired, encouraged and then trusted," Shirkey said. "Right now, we're still under an environment where this governor does not trust the citizens of Michigan to do the right thing."

Whitmer's administration has already eased many restrictions aimed at stemming the spread of the virus. On March 2, her administration announced it would allow larger outdoor events to resume, double capacity limits at restaurants from 25% to 50% and move the curfew for indoor dining from 10 p.m. to 11 p.m.

Michigan reported its first cases of COVID-19 a year ago Wednesday. The state has now confirmed 15,706 deaths linked to the virus.

Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, said the new Senate resolution was part of majority Republicans' "campaign against the governor." He proposed an unsuccessful amendment to limit legal costs related to a potential lawsuit to $10,000.

"Enriching lawyers because you are unwilling to negotiate with the governor is plain ridiculous. It is a waste of taxpayer dollars," Ananich said.

Whitmer has already vetoed one of the two bills tied to money in the supplemental spending package. That bill would have moved authority to close schools to local public health officials who would have had to comply with certain case and hospitalization benchmarks before suspending in-person learning at schools.

The Michigan Association for Local Public Health opposed the legislation. School district lines often cross health department boundaries, the association noted.

"House Bill 4049 is a reckless idea, poorly executed and poorly timed," Whitmer wrote in a letter explaining her veto.

Under the spending package, $840 million in federal relief funds for schools were connected to the proposal. Whitmer's administration is reviewing the language that tied the spending to the bill to determine whether vetoing it means the federal cash can't be released, according to a past Whitmer office statement.

The package also tied $347 million in epidemiology and laboratory capacity grant money to a bill that would limit epidemic orders from the Department of Health and Human Services to 28 days. After that deadline, the Legislature would have to sign off for the orders to continue.

Whitmer's administration has used the orders to require masks be worn in public places, close some businesses and suspend indoor dining at restaurants. The 28-day bill hasn't been sent to the governor yet but a veto is expected.

On Monday, Whitmer said she wouldn't give up the powers of the governor's office.

Appearing on MSNBC, the Democratic governor contended that Republican state lawmakers are holding back a portion of the federal funding and trying to use the money to get her to relinquish her administration's authority.

"They know that’s never going to happen," Whitmer told MSNBC's Stephanie Ruhle.

If a lawsuit is filed, it wouldn't be the first between GOP lawmakers and the Democratic governor.

On Oct. 2, the Michigan Supreme Court decided that Whitmer violated her constitutional authority by continuing to issue executive orders to combat COVID-19 without the approval of state lawmakers. The state's high court ruled 4-3 that a state law allowing the governor to declare emergencies and keep them in place without legislative input — the 1945 Emergency Powers of the Governor Act — was unconstitutional.

The resolution adopted by the Senate on Thursday says the chamber "must defend the Legislature's role to appropriate moneys and as a co-equal branch of government in Michigan’s constitutional system."