Finley: Whitmer's powers need oversight

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

Michigan’s Constitution makes no provision for turning the state into a dictatorship, even in the name of protecting the people.

But that’s how Gov. Gretchen Whitmer will be applying the document if she goes ahead with a 15-day extension of her emergency orders without getting approval from the Legislature.

I've got no beef with extending the shutdown, which was set to expire Thursday, particularly since the governor is relaxing some of its more absurd provisions.

It is offensive to democratic principles and the law, however, to unilaterally impose a lengthening of the emergency powers, without consensus from lawmakers or oversight of how she uses the authority.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey is weighing a lawsuit to reassert the Legislature's constitutional role. He has no choice.

Shirkey had offered the governor an extension that would be reviewed and modified every 10 days as appropriate. He asked only for a plan for reopening the economy, and a more cooperative relationship with the Legislature.

Whitmer is choosing instead to break her own precedent and extend the orders without legislative endorsement.

She’s claiming the power to do so under a 1945 Emergency Powers Act that does not mention the Legislature, nor does it put limits on the duration of the declaration.

A 1976 version of the law, however, specifically limits a gubernatorial declaration of an emergency to 28 days, and requires lawmakers to approve an extension. That’s what they did on April 9, when Whitmer’s initial order ran out, granting another 23 days — she had asked for 70.

The 1945 law is written to deal with brief episodes of civil unrest or natural disaster which demand immediate action by the governor. The later version deals more clearly with crises such as pandemics, when consultation with the Legislature can safely go forward.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks on Friday, April 24.

Whitmer is switching between the two laws as it suits her purpose. She knows lawmakers are not likely to continue her unchecked power, given the way she’s abused it to this point. Witness that curious virus data gathering contract that went without bid to a firm tied to the Democratic Party.

This isn’t about protecting the public. It’s about political convenience. Whitmer doesn’t want to be bothered having to explain and justify her decisions, nor does she want to be held accountable.

It reflects the disdain she’s held for consensus governing since she took office. 

Again, lawmakers were not attempting to shackle the governor as she tries to manage this crisis. They asked only for her to respect their constitutional role. 

“I’m inclined to agree to extending it, with limitations,” Shirkey said before Friday’s announcement by Whitmer. “I'd be doing it because if we take ourselves out we limit our ability to influence the process.

Sen. Mike Shirkey.

“If we have limitations that we ask her to affirm publicly, we can rely on the entire state to hold her accountable.”

Accountability is essential when granting a governor extraordinary powers. In staking the position that no one can check her authority, Whitmer could keep the state under a state of emergency for months, and even unilaterally alter how Michigan conducts the fall election.

The COVID-19 crisis in Michigan is not over, and may not be for awhile. It may not be feasible yet to expect a return to normal life.

But it is time to return to normal, checks-and-balance governing.

Twitter: @NolanFinleyDN

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