Michigan Senate's final shot to block health director comes Tuesday

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — The Michigan Senate faces a Tuesday deadline to decide whether to block the appointment of Elizabeth Hertel as the director of the Department of Health and Human Services, a central position in Michigan's COVID-19 response.

As of Monday afternoon, it was unclear whether Republicans who control the state Senate would exercise their power to reject the appointment as part of their opposition to Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's handling of the pandemic. Sen. Aric Nesbitt, R-Lawton, who chairs the Advice and Consent Committee, said he hadn't decided yet whether his panel would meet Tuesday.

The full Senate is scheduled to convene at 10 a.m Tuesday, the 60th day since Whitmer picked Hertel to replace Robert Gordon as state health director on Jan. 22. Under the Michigan Constitution and a past attorney general opinion, the Senate has 60 days to disapprove of her appointment through a formal vote.

Elizabeth Hertel, director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services

During an appearance on "The Bart Hawley Show" on Jackson TV last week, Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, spoke positively about Hertel and provided no definitive answers on whether he would try to prevent her appointment.

"I know Elizabeth well," Shirkey said. "She is very intelligent, very experienced, very tough, very clear."

He added, "I am going to let the advice and consent process finish out before I make any final comments on this."

Shirkey's looming decision could reveal what's ahead for the Senate's relationship with Whitmer — a year into disagreements over the balance of power in state government. Before becoming director, Hertel was senior chief deputy director for administration for the department. Years earlier, she worked for Republicans in the state Legislature. She's married to Sen. Curtis Hertel, D-East Lansing.

A segment of Shirkey's 20-member Senate GOP caucus has been pushing — openly and privately — to block Hertel, citing frustration with Whitmer's unilateral decisions to impose limitations on businesses and gatherings without legislative approval.

Under Michigan law, the health director wields unique power to issue epidemic orders to combat a pandemic. The Whitmer administration has used the orders to temporarily suspend indoor dining at restaurants, limit capacity at businesses and require masks be worn in public places.

In recent months, the Whitmer administration has begun easing the restrictions, including allowing restaurants to reopen at 25% capacity on Feb. 1 and further relaxing requirements on March 5.

Six GOP state senators signed onto a March 4 letter against Hertel's appointment: Tom Barrett, R-Charlotte; Ruth Johnson, R-Holly; Jim Runestad, R-White Lake; Sen. Kim LaSata, R-Bainbridge Township; Lana Theis, R-Brighton, and Dale Zorn, R-Ida.

"After reviewing her initial actions as director and her answers to committee questioning, we respectfully request that you hold a committee vote on Director Hertel's appointment and report it unfavorably," they wrote. "The Senate should decline to consent to Director Hertel's appointment and advise Governor Whitmer to appoint a director who will uphold the separation of powers and collaborate with the Legislature to address public health issues."

Sen. Roger Victory, R-Hudsonville, has also come out against Hertel. But it would take 19 no votes from the 20-member Republican caucus to formally block the appointment.

Numerous interest groups are supporting Hertel, including the Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association, the Michigan State Medical Society, the Michigan Health & Hospital Association and Blue Cross Blue Shield. Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, has said the state is "lucky to have someone as qualified, capable and dedicated as Director Hertel at its helm, especially during this global health crisis.

"Her resume is a mile long and she’s proven to be extremely successful working with Republicans and Democrats, in the private and public health sectors, in both policy and administration," Ananich said. "Should Senate Republicans manipulate the advice and consent process to achieve a political goal, that would send a terrible message to Michigan residents their agenda is more important than the success of our state’s health services."

The Michigan Senate previously blocked 18 of Whitmer's recent appointments to various boards and positions as Republicans clashed with her over restrictions tied to the virus.