Michigan House votes to repeal emergency law used by Whitmer during pandemic

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — The Michigan House voted 60-48 Wednesday to repeal a law used by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to issue dozens of executive orders at the height of the coronavirus pandemic.

The House vote approves the Unlock Michigan petition initiative, which received more than 500,000 signatures in support of repealing the 1945 Emergency Powers of the Governor Act.

The Legislature's approval of the repeal means the issue won't go before voters at the next general election, as is usually the case with an initiative petition. The repeal takes effect 90 days after the end of the legislative session, or a few months into 2022. 

The 1945 law is all but defunct at this point after the Michigan Supreme Court in October ruled it was unconstitutional.

"We're grateful to the members of the House and Senate who stood with the people of Michigan, and we're grateful for their help in repealing the misguided 1945 law that caused so much pain once and for all," said Fred Wszolek, a spokesman for Unlock Michigan.

Four Democratic lawmakers joined Republicans Wednesday to repeal the law, including Rep. Tim Sneller of Burton, Rep. Karen Whitsett of Detroit, Rep. Sara Cambensy of Marquette and Rep. Richard Steenland of Roseville.

Far too much of the hardship faced during the pandemic was a result of decisions made by government leaders, causing residents to decide "they had enough" as they "stood up to make a difference," House Speaker Jason Wentworth, R-Farwell, said in a statement Wednesday. 

"They took strong action to protect their families, their children’s education and their ability to make ends meet, and we can never thank them enough," Wentworth said in a statement. 

“They deserve a state government that is willing to do the same. They’ve earned that much. That’s why we had their back today and put this petition into law.”

House Democratic Leader Donna Lasinski, D-Scio Township, called Wednesday's vote "political theater."

"What we know was this was put on the board — unlike any bill that would have helped Michiganders — this was put on the board in order to make a political point," Lasinski said.

Unlock Michigan leaders collected more than 540,000 signatures over 80 days last summer and into the fall before turning in its signatures on Oct. 2, the same day the Michigan Supreme Court ruled the law was unconstitutional.

The Michigan Bureau of Elections in April recommended the Board of State Canvassers certify the petition initiative, but the board deadlocked along party lines on the petition until the high court directed canvassers to certify. 

The initiative was certified by the board last week and two days later the Michigan Senate voted 20-15, along party lines, to adopt the measure. 

"Next, we'll turn our attention to the public health law Whitmer abused to destroy lives, businesses, and futures," Wszolek said, referring to a second initiative seeking to place a 28-day limit on public health epidemic orders. "Don't bet against our success there either."

Keep Michigan Safe, a group formed to oppose the Unlock Michigan initiative, criticized the House vote as a "political power grab" that will restrict Michigan's ability to react swiftly in a time of crisis.

"Today, House Republicans voted to eradicate an important tool for elected leaders trying to save lives and stop the spread of deadly, infectious diseases like COVID-19, Legionnaire’s, tuberculosis and anthrax," said Mark Fisk, a spokesman for Keep Michigan Safe.

Michigan law gives the Legislature 40 days after the certification of an initiative to adopt or reject the proposal. If no action is taken, the initiative would appear on the ballot at the next general election. 

In the case of Unlock Michigan, leaders of the initiative have planned from the start for the GOP-majority Legislature to adopt the initiative before it could go before voters. The adoption of the initiative sidesteps a Whitmer veto, which was all but guaranteed if the repeal had gone through the regular legislative process.

Rep. Andrew Fink, R-Hillsdale, said Wednesday that the law gave Whitmer “practically unlimited executive decision making" and was rightfully overturned by the Supreme Court.

"After months of delay, it is time for us to repeal an unconstitutional law," Fink said.

Rep. Julie Rodgers, D-Kalamazoo, said the question is better put to voters at the ballot box than to lawmakers. She also defended the governor's actions during the pandemic.  

“This is not a rogue governor following her own rules,” she said. “She was following a statute that was written and only recently ruled on by the Supreme Court.”

Cambensy, D-Marquette, urged lawmakers to find a replacement for the 1945 law to guide the state in future crises. 

"The Legislature makes the laws. The court interprets them. And it would be inappropriate for this body not to respect the (Supreme Court) ruling," Cambensy said. "It’s time to move on. It's time to work together on a law that clearly defines how we will deal with the pandemic going forward."

Rep. Jack O'Malley, R-Lake Ann, defended the Legislature's decision to vote to repeal the law the Supreme Court overturned while the governor "defends it to this day."

"Here we are, acting in a constitutional fashion to defend this state from any future governor regardless of their political affiliation," said O'Malley said. 

"I will not be voting yes today. I will be voting ‘hell yes.’”