Michigan Senate OKs bill targeting Whitmer's use of alert system

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — The Michigan Senate approved a bill Wednesday that aims to limit the use of the state’s alert system after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer utilized the technology as part of her response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The GOP-controlled Senate voted along party lines 20-16 to stipulate that the public health system, which can send messages to wireless devices, must not be activated to announce a new law or executive order unless the policy responds to "an immediate or nearly immediate loss of life or property."

An alert informs recipients of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's new executive order on masks in July 2020.

Whitmer's administration used the state's alert system to provide information about her initial stay-at-home order in March 2020. The order restricted non-essential travel in the state in an attempt to stem the spread of COVID-19.

The administration also used the system in July 2020 to inform the public about the governor's order requiring masks to be worn in indoor public spaces.

Rep. Bradley Slagh, R-Zeeland, the sponsor of the bill, has said "overusing the alert system" will cause people to "become numb to legitimate emergencies in the future."

"Many people told me that the governor’s use of the emergency system made them look for a way to turn off the alerts,” Slagh said in a statement last year. “If residents get tired of people ‘crying wolf’ and turn them off, they won’t have valuable and life-saving information when a true emergency takes place.”

But Shanon Banner, spokeswoman for the Michigan State Police, said Whitmer's administration used a different specific alert system than the one Slagh's bill focuses on. His proposal mentions the public threat alert system, which has only been used once since its creation in 2016, Banner said.

It was the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System that was used to disseminate statewide alerts in 2020 to protect public health in response to COVID-19, Banner said.

Three Senate Democrats spoke Wednesday against the GOP proposal. Sen. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, said the the bill would affect no one because of the way it was worded.

"The governor certainly believed that there was an immediate threat of ... loss of life or property at the beginning of this pandemic," Irwin said.

Since the pandemic began in Michigan in March 2020, the state has reported 20,257 deaths linked to the virus. The arguments against Whitmer's use of the alert system were "ridiculous," Irwin said. Providing information about an emergency is not a threat to someone's liberty, he said.

"It's just good government, a helpful warning about a deadly pandemic," Irwin said.

The legislation passed the House in March. It would have to gain Whitmer's signature to become law, which is unlikely.