Michigan Senate approves requiring notice when governor leaves state

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — The Republican-controlled Michigan Senate voted Wednesday to require that legislative leaders be notified when Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer leaves the state and another official assumes her powers.

The party-line vote of 20-16 highlighted ongoing GOP frustration over a trip Whitmer quietly took in March to visit father in Florida and came after a heated debate on the Senate floor.

Democrats criticized Republicans for trying to figure out the governor's whereabouts, while Republicans said they simply want to know who's in charge and who has the ability to make decisions in an emergency.

This twin-engine jet Gulfstream G280 owned by Air Eagle flew from Lansing to Palm Beach on March 12 and returned to Lansing on March 15. Whitmer's father, Richard, the retired CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, owns a home in West Palm Beach.

The proposal, sponsored by Sen. Tom Barrett, R-Charlotte, would require the person who assumes the governor's powers when she is out of state, usually the lieutenant governor, to notify the four leaders of the state Legislature.

"We are asking to know, if you read the bill, who is fulfilling the duties and responsibilities of the governor," Barrett said Wednesday. "It says nothing about knowing where the location of the governor is, what their travel routes are, where they're staying, where they're going, what they're doing, whose billionaire jet they're on. ... We're not asking for that."

Barrett's comments referred to the private plane primarily used by three Metro Detroit businessmen that Whitmer took to visit her father, Richard, in Florida.

Sen. Curtis Hertel, D-East Lansing, labeled the legislation silly and said majority Republicans are now passing bills on what notes must be sent between the governor and lawmakers.

"If you are wondering where the governor lives, it's in a space rent free in the sponsor's head," Hertel said of Barrett. "This legislation is the equivalent of an internet troll."

Under the bill, the person who assumes the governor's powers has to notify the House speaker, the House minority leader, the Senate majority leader and the Senate minority leader "no later than 12 hours after assuming the powers and duties of the office of the governor."

In the unusual situation where the lieutenant governor and governor are out of state, the secretary of state assumes the governor's powers. The current lieutenant governor is Garlin Gilchrist II, Whitmer's Democratic running mate, and the secretary of state is Jocelyn Benson, also a Democrat.

Barrett introduced the proposal on May 19 amid ongoing controversy about a trip the governor took to visit her father in Florida in March. Although Whitmer left Michigan on March 12 and returned on March 15, as the COVID-19 pandemic continued, her administration didn't acknowledge the travel until April 19.

On May 14, her team said a nonprofit social welfare organization, Michigan Transition 2019, which was set up to help fund her inauguration, chartered the jet for the trip. Then, 13 days later, Whitmer's campaign attorney said her campaign committee would actually pay $27,521 for the chartered flights.

Whitmer will reimburse her candidate committee for the cost of a first-class commercial airline ticket for herself and her daughters, who accompanied her on the return flight, said Christopher Trebilcock, legal counsel for the Whitmer for Governor candidate committee and Michigan Transition 2019. 

After the flight, PVS Chemicals, one of the companies that uses the plane, told Michigan Transition 2019 that Federal Aviation Administration rules prevented it from taking the $27,521 in reimbursement from the social welfare organization, Trebilcock said.

"Based on this new understanding, the cost of the flight will now be paid from the Whitmer for Governor campaign fund consistent with FAA rules," Trebilcock said

The Michigan State Police and Whitmer have been critical of the Senate Republican bill. Whitmer spokesman Bobby Leddy said GOP lawmakers were wasting time "taking political pot shots" while they should be allocating federal relief dollars to help businesses and families.

Sen. Tom Barrett, R-Charlotte

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 October, authorities uncovered a plot to kidnap Whitmer. Michigan's U.S. attorneys and Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel detailed charges against 13 people and what they described as "elaborate plans" to harm the governor. Individuals involved conducted surveillance on Whitmer's vacation home.