Bill would require governor notify lawmakers when leaving Michigan

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — A Republican lawmaker introduced a bill Wednesday that requires Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and future governors to notify legislative leaders when leaving Michigan.

The proposal, which could gain support in the GOP-controlled Legislature, comes in the wake of controversy surrounding Whitmer's trip to Florida in March to visit her father, Richard.

The Democratic governor took a private plane that's primarily used by three Metro Detroit business leaders to Florida on March 12 and back on March 15. The trip, which wasn't disclosed publicly until April 19, came during the COVID-19 pandemic and involved a nonprofit organization connected to the administration paying $27,521 for the use of the plane.

Sen. Tom Barrett

Sen. Tom Barrett, R-Charlotte, who is sponsoring the new proposal, said if the state has an emergency, the leaders of the Michigan House and Senate need to know who is empowered to make decisions.

"What happens if the governor has left, decides not to tell anybody and we have a real emergency arise?" Barrett asked.

He added, "We just need to know who is fulfilling the role of governor of the state at any given time."

Whitmer's spokesman, Bobby Leddy, was critical of the plan Wednesday, saying GOP lawmakers were wasting time "taking political pot shots" while they should be allocating federal relief dollars to help businesses and families.

"It would behoove the Legislature to read the Michigan Constitution, which clearly outlines a process to ensure that there is always an acting governor available to continue the functions of the state in case of an emergency," Leddy said. "If the Legislature wants to waste their time playing games, that's their own decision, but Gov. Whitmer is going to remain focused on ending this pandemic and putting Michigan back to work."

Likewise, Shanon Banner, spokeswoman for the Michigan State Police, said the agency has "serious concerns" with any proposal that includes advance notification of the governor's travel schedule.

"This is especially important in today’s environment given the number of death threats she has received, to include the well-publicized Wolverine Watchmen kidnapping plot," Banner said. "The more people who know or have access to her movements, the higher the risk level for both her and her executive protection detail."

In Michigan, the lieutenant governor, currently Garlin Gilchrist II, assumes the powers of the governor, including the ability to sign bills into law, when the governor is out of state.

If both the lieutenant governor and the governor are out of state, the powers fall to the secretary of state, currently Democrat Jocelyn Benson.

Under Barrett's bill, the governor will have to inform legislative leaders when departing Michigan and when returning to the state. The notification would include who is assuming the governor's powers and would have to go to the Senate majority leader, the Senate minority leader, the speaker of the House and the House minority leader.

Republicans have criticized Whitmer's March trip to Florida, contending that her administration should have been more open about the details of the travel. On Friday, Whitmer's chief of staff, JoAnne Huls, confirmed the dates the governor was outside Michigan and the fact that a nonprofit funded the chartered flights.

"Due to ongoing security and public health concerns, we made a decision to use a chartered flight for this trip," Huls wrote in a memo. "The governor's flight was not a gift, not paid for at taxpayer expense and was done in compliance with the law."

Whitmer has repeatedly said she took the flight to visit her father who was facing a chronic illness. She has said there "was an important family reason for doing it." 

The social welfare nonprofit organization Michigan Transition 2019 chartered the private plane, which took Whitmer to Florida on Friday, March 12, and returned her to Lansing, on Monday, March 15. The group spent $27,521 on travel over the first 14 days of May, according to a voluntary disclosure, which apparently covers the March flights. The same disclosure showed Whitmer paid the nonprofit a $855 total for her seat on the flights.