New Michigan budget targets govt. vaccine mandates, emergency orders

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

The state budget plan advancing Tuesday in the Michigan Legislature would limit the ability of government agencies to mandate COVID-19 vaccines and would require the state health department to provide more information to impose emergency orders.

The provisions of the new funding plan are two potential victories for Republican lawmakers who control the state House and Senate. Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, said the policies, which are meant to be in effect for the new fiscal year beginning Oct. 1, were part of "sincere and honest" negotiation with Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's administration.

Since October, the Whitmer administration has used epidemic orders issued by the director of the state Department of Health and Human Services to respond to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, including temporarily closing certain businesses and capping public gatherings when the virus previously surged. However, GOP legislators have argued that Whitmer's team hasn't shared enough data to back up their actions.

Under the budget plan, if current state health Director Elizabeth Hertel wants to institute another epidemic order, she will have to file a report within seven days on the evidence that shows why the action is necessary and an explanation of the scope of the epidemic that the order is intended to address.

"It doesn’t prohibit them from doing so," Shirkey said about the epidemic orders. "But I believe, at the core, they have an obligation to be more fully transparent and accountable for the decisions that they’re making."

The budget plan includes broad language that says state government departments, agencies, boards, commissions and public officers cannot subject any individual to negative employment consequences or retribution because of their COVID-19 vaccine status.

The proposal for funding community colleges and universities features its own language requiring that higher education institutions provide medical and religious exemptions to mandatory vaccine requirements. House Appropriations Chairman Thomas Albert, R-Lowell, said the policy had also been negotiated into the budget plan with Whitmer's team.

During a Tuesday press conference on Mackinac Island, Whitmer said there were discussions around "various aspects" of the budget. But she declined to go into specifics.

"We did not come to agreement on certain things. We did on others," the governor said. "At this point, when the budget is shared more broadly, I'd be happy to delve in more deeply."

The budget also features language barring the state health director and local health officials from requiring those under the age of 18 years old to wear masks. In recent weeks, health officers in multiple counties have issued orders mandating masks in K-12 schools.

Albert suggested that Whitmer had agreed to that language and that lawmakers were waiting to see whether the governor would use her powers to strike it.

Under another provision, if Michigan governmental entities are required to create a vaccine policy because of a federal mandate, they must provide exemptions for individuals who certify the vaccine might be detrimental to their health or those who have religious convictions against vaccination, according to the budget proposal.

President Joe Biden's administration is pursuing rules to force employers with more than 100 workers to require them to be vaccinated or tested for the virus weekly. But it's unclear what the specifics of that will be.

Shirkey, who has recovered from COVID-19 but is not vaccinated, has argued that the decision whether to get vaccinated should be a personal choice and should not affect someone's livelihood.

"We should not be mixing the two," Shirkey said.

Albert echoed that idea.

"I don't think it's the place of government to mandate something that's such a personal decision," he said.

Whitmer has resisted the idea the of using her administration's powers to mandate state workers get vaccinated.

As of Monday, 67.2% of the state's population age 16 and up have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services. About 57% are fully vaccinated, according to the state health department.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Michigan has reported 995,910 COVID-19 infections and 20,700 deaths linked to the virus.

The Whitmer administration has not yet addressed the budget language on vaccinations and epidemic orders. On Tuesday morning, Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist didn't identify specific concessions the governor made during the budget process but acknowledged there was a negotiation process.

"Everyone needs to leave the table accomplishing something for their constituents," Gilchrist said.

He added, "I am confident that when people see this budget, they will see things that will be benefiting people."