Michigan Republicans move to block Gov. Whitmer’s environmental overhaul

Michigan House Republicans on Wednesday moved to block Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, from reorganizing the Department of Environmental Quality.

Feb. 15: What's next after Republicans kill Whitmer’s environmental shakeup?
Feb. 14: Michigan Republicans kill Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s environmental overhaul plan
Feb. 13: Few love MDEQ. But are oversight panels worth Whitmer-GOP showdown?

LANSING — Michigan Republicans are trying to block Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s plan to overhaul the state’s environmental department because it would eliminate oversight panels favored by the GOP.

In an early blow to bipartisanship, the Republican-led House voted by party lines, 58-51, on Wednesday afternoon to override the new Democratic governor’s executive order to transform the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) into the Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE).

The override would take effect if both Republican-led chambers approve it within 60 days, but Senate leaders say they continue to negotiate with Whitmer.

She announced the reorganized department on Monday, saying it would prioritize threats to drinking water, climate change and environmental justice.  Whitmer’s executive order, which takes effect April 7, would also abolish boards Republicans lawmakers crafted last year that give business interests a greater voice in environmental rules.

An eight-paragraph resolution from Rep. Jim Lower, R-Cedar Lake, says the panels “ought not be abolished by executive decree.” Testifying Wednesday, Lower called Whitmer’s move an “abuse of power” and a “de facto veto” of a law the Legislature adopted last year.

“We can’t allow it to be abolished by a unilateral executive order,” Lower said.

The skirmish comes barely one month into Whitmer’s tenure and appears to challenge her desire to find common ground with Republicans and avoid gridlock that often threatens divided governments.

The row also comes as Michigan faces a host of threats to its water, including widespread pollution from a group of cancer-causing chemicals known as PFAS.

As the House considered an override Wednesday, Whitmer asked Attorney General Dana Nessel, a fellow Democrat, to rule on the legality of the oversight panels Republicans seek to protect.

In her letter to Nessel, Whitmer wrote that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency questioned whether the new panels were “so cumbersome and time-consuming” that they would jeopardize federal requirements for timely rulemaking.

At a hastily arranged press conference minutes after the House vote, Whitmer refused to back down.

“I’m not withdrawing the executive order. I stand by it. It is the best policy to clean up drinking water,” she said. “Today’s action endangers the public and threatens to burn bridges. And that’s unfortunate because a lot of people are counting on us to clean up their drinking water.”

Whitmer called the House’s maneuver a “huge setback” for bipartisanship, but said it wouldn’t destroy prospects for consensus.

“I still want to work with people,” she said.

Whitmer called the House’s maneuver a “huge setback” for bipartisanship, but said it wouldn’t destroy prospects for consensus. (Bridge photo by Jim Malewitz). 

Senate still negotiating

Both chambers would need to approve the override of Whitmer’s executive order, which would be immune to a veto.  Lower said the Legislature hasn’t overturned an executive order since 1977.

Democrats contend Whitmer is using her Constitutional power to reshape the government and reversing her order imperils clean water.

“We’re putting public health at risk,” Rep. Christine Greig, D-Farmington Hills, the House Democratic leader, said at the committee heating Wednesday.

Republicans and industry groups — including the Michigan Chamber of Commerce — say the boards are necessary to increase transparency in environmental rulemaking.

Lower said he, like Whitmer, campaigned for clean water, and he supported parts of her executive order. But he was moving quickly to reverse the order to give her plenty of time to submit a new version.

During testimony Wednesday, he and fellow Republican Jim Lilly of Park Township said they would support a nearly identical order from Whitmer if it kept the disputed panels intact.

House Speaker Lee Chatfield, of Levering, said he would seek a compromise with Whitmer, but he would not say what that might look like.

“Bipartisanship requires negotiation, and bipartisanship is a two-way street.”

Senate Republicans say they aren’t yet ready to seek to overturn Whitmer’s order.

Amber McCann, a spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey of Clarklake said he wants Whitmer to addresses Republicans’ concerns without prompting an override vote.

“The goal is to keep an open line of communication and hope there is a way for us to reach consensus and compromise at every opportunity,” McCann said.

Shirkey and Chatfield met with Whitmer on Wednesday morning to voice their concerns, McCann said.

She said Shirkey wants to examine Whitmer’s executive order in the Senate Oversight Committee, which could hold hearings as early as next week.

Whitmer’s vision

Whitmer envisions a reshaped agency that would include a “Clean Water Public Advocate,” “Environmental Justice Public Advocate” and an “Office of Climate and Energy.”

The public advocates would accept, investigate and analyze complaints related to drinking water and environmental justice problems, and work within state government to address them.

The new department would also house an interagency team — composed of agency directors across state government — to draw a statewide environmental justice plan. The aim is to fix policies that disproportionately pollute low-income and minority communities from power plants and factories.

Whitmer’s orders do not increase funding for environmental regulation.

Whitmer’s reshuffling  comes nearly five years after residents of Flint were exposed to high levels of toxic lead in their drinking water, a crisis largely attributed to failures in state government, including the DEQ.

“We need to be laser-focused on cleaning up the water in our state,” Whitmer said Monday.

“Right now, communities across our state don’t trust the water coming out of their taps, and there’s a real lack of trust in state government.”

Business opposition

But the nixed oversight boards are drawing the most attention. Most notably: the Environmental Rules Review Commission.

Republicans created the private-sector panel — largely populated by industry officials — to safeguard against what they contend was overzealous regulation by state officials.

The board, which has members appointed by former Gov. Rick Snyder, has power to “oversee all rulemaking of the Department of Environmental Quality.”

In the event of a stalemate between the agency’s director and the board, the director could seek a final ruling from the governor.

But James Clift, policy director at the Michigan Environmental Council, said the board could halt resolutions by taking them up and never acting — therefore never kicking a decision to Whitmer.

“They could create this infinite loop,” Clift said.

A separate Environmental Permit Review Commission resolves permitting disputes at the agency.

Aggrieved parties trying to, for instance, alter floodplains, drill for oil, mine minerals — or do most anything requiring regulator’s permission — could seek relief. It does not require members to come from particular professions.

Environmentalists last year dubbed the boards “polluter panels,” arguing they would defang an agency that has lost teeth due to years of crunched budgets and prioritization of economic development.

But Republicans and industry backers say they would bring more accountability to an agency they’ve viewed as overly strict. 

DEQ approved 99.5 percent of permit applications — 7,413 of 7,447 — in the 2017 fiscal year and 99.8 percent the previous year, agency figures show.

The panels have only met twice, Whitmer said, and have yet take action on a rule or permit. 

Whitmer has support from Heidi Grether, Snyder's last DEQ chief and former oil industry lobbyist and executive. In a letter to Whitmer and legislative leaders Wednesday, she wrote to continuing the panels would risk "wasting valuable resources" and potentially jeopardize authority the federal government has granted to Michigan regulators. 

"Without final decision-making to move forward with an administrative rule, the department will be unable to perform its statutory duty." she wrote.

Staff writer Lindsay VanHulle contributed to this report.

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M Wells
Wed, 02/06/2019 - 9:18pm

It's absurd to have government bodies staffed by regulated companies with the power to block environmental regulation - it's a quintessential "fox guarding the henhouse" situation. Why should polluting companies have more power than the average citizen to intervene in environmental regulation? If a CEO, say, doesn't agree with a regulation, he or she can give pubic comments, vote or campaign against the politicians behind it, bring a lawsuit, etc. - just like any other citizen. Why should he or his representatives have the right to intervene directly in the rulemaking process, any more than anyone else affected by a regulation? A board like this creates a special set of rights for industry that places them above ordinary citizens - as if their money and connections don't already give them disproportionate power.

Environmental rulemaking should be based on facts solidly backed by scientific research, and the protection of the rights and welfare of all citizens. The special interests of industry should get no extra seat at the table.

Wed, 02/06/2019 - 9:28pm

Do we want another Flint Water problem, or another Parchment water issue? We are a recreational destinantion for many, shouldnt our environment be suitable for the tourists and ourselves?

Alex Sagady
Wed, 02/06/2019 - 10:05pm

What both Gov. Whitmer and the Legislature's republicans are missing is the whole question of MDEQ governance and public access to public decisionmaking.

We used to have a system with a Michigan Air Pollution Control Commission and a Michigan Water Resources Commission that were attached to Michigan DNR. Each of these bodies were established by law and had very balanced representation set under the law by the statutory requirements. Both commissions held authority over the issuance of environmental protection rules and permits. They had monthly, well attended meetings at various locations around the state, held public hearings, heard environmental complaints and had the authority to grant contested case hearings before a hearing officer on disputes.

Both of these commissions were abolished by Governor John Engler using the very same authority as Gov. Whitmer is presently attempting to use, and Engler transferred all of their authorities to the MDEQ director. Engler thus ended the entire idea in Michigan of public decisionmaking done in public meeting forums.....as the MDEQ director never carried out business in this manner in public meetings.

Neither Governors Jennifer Granholm, Rick Snyder nor Gretchen Whitmer have done anything to re-establish public citizen commission governance over environmental protection decisisions.....instead claiming that these powers should be in the hands of elected officials and their department director appointees. The politicians don't want to give up control through their appointees.

Except for Steve Chester at MDEQ in Granholm's time, we haven't had any highly knowledgeable environmental protection leaders in the mold of Dr. Howard Tanner or Ralph MacMullin (in Milliken's time) and this has led Michigan governors to select political handlers, not experts, as department directors. The commonality of Engler's selection of Russ Harding, Snyder's selection of Dan Wyant & Heidi Grether and Whitmer's selection of Liesl Clark is uncanny. None of these individuals are or were competent to lead MDEQ, none were qualified environmental professionals knowledgeable about environmental protection programs, none worked in environmental control programs and none of them have/had scientific educational credentials and experience that would prepare an MDEQ director for leadership.

Industrial groups last year moved to make their own appointive public forums, but the composition of these boards is grossly deficient to serve any public trust purposes or to have any credibility at all with members of the public who have grievances about environmental problems.

Is Whitmer capable of giving up control to a different kind of appointive citizen governance panel to make the most important rulemaking and permitting decisions of MDEQ? That isn't clear, but negotiations about doing so might be one route she could use to saving her executive orders from republican-voted oblivion.

To do this and be successful and to generate a final result worthy of public trust environmental protection and public confidence, Whitmer will need to learn the difference between environmental stewardship and environmental messaging, which will be a difficult thing for her since there isn't any evidence in Whitmer's career of priority involvement with environmental stewardship decisions and site specific environmental controversies.

Thu, 02/07/2019 - 2:12am

As someone who didn't live in Michigan until long after Engler made these changes, the information you've laid out here is critical in helping me to better understand the larger picture regarding Michigan's regulatory bodies. Thank you for the context

Thu, 02/07/2019 - 1:37pm

Wow, I was a kid during the time period that you're talking about under Engler and I had no idea about this background. Thank you for posting this! The persistent pull between increased executive power without oversight and decentralized citizen power is the modern political dilemma of this generation, it feels like.

Anne Bartels
Thu, 02/07/2019 - 9:57am

Sad. Of course the GOP is blocking her efforts, they hate all things environmental. These same 'regulatory panels' are the same ones that are shoving approval of permits by the DEQ for the Aquila Back 40 sulfide mine on the banks of the Menominee River in the UP (border with northeastern WI). If MI is a destination site and "Pure" as the tourism slogan says, this is a gross lie - we don't want acidic tailings, deep pit mining, and waste flowing into the river and decimating it's habitat, beauty, cleanliness, or the native Menominee tribe sites located along it. I live on the Menominee and no one up here thinks it's a good idea or wants it, and the 'jobs' it will provide will not make up for years of damage when there is a failure of some sort (see Brazilian tailings dam failure that just happened!) What a crock the GOP is shoveling. They are sore losers that their GOP stooge didn't get the governorship. Unfortunately we voted back in a GOP led legislature, so hopefully she can get a few things to improve MI for citizens, but i am sure they will block her at every chance. Sad that people don't seem to realize that you need to vote in people that will support the citizens and not corporations.

Thu, 02/07/2019 - 12:11pm

Lower (R) says the panels “ought not be abolished by decree and that it is an “abuse of power” and a “de facto veto” of a law the Legislature adopted last year." That's laughable after Snyder and Schutte!

Thu, 02/07/2019 - 1:41pm

Until research and development and manufacturing are held accountable for the" cradle to grave" of their products, this discussion will continue. One side can easily blame the other that's in power but this is just another band-aid approach to governmental regulations. Fix the root cause!

Helen Handbasket
Thu, 02/07/2019 - 2:21pm

The MDEQ has acted as the GESTAPO for the last 15 years.
It is a "willy nilly" defunct department.
Business' will leave MI because of the practices they've set forth.

Fri, 02/08/2019 - 1:21pm

Yes, Helen. Businesses should absolutely have the ability to pollute and profit from pouring chemicals and waste into our air and water.
The little people should be required to pay for the clean up while the owners of these businesses retire to their estates in Florida.
Privatize profits , socialize costs should be made into law.

Thu, 02/07/2019 - 2:22pm

These "oversight panels" would be fine if they only provided oversight. Unfortunately, both of these panels are heavily filled with industry professionals and with a simple majority vote can overturn decisions by trained professionals in the DEQ. If they were truly an oversight group that provided multi-faceted input to decision making, it would be fine. As it is, they are a group that is accountable to no one, except their employers. The Chamber of Commerce appears to be the new puppet master for the MI GOP.

Steve H.
Thu, 02/07/2019 - 3:04pm

The Republicans define hypocrisy. 'Lower called Whitmer’s move an “abuse of power” and a “de facto veto” of a law the Legislature adopted last year.'. Seriously? What did the Repubs do to some of the ballot proposals recently passed by the people of this state. They immediately voted to significantly weaken the laws put in place by the proposals. Talk about an abuse of power! The puppet masters at Chamber of Commerce didn't like the proposals, so they had their lackeys in the legislature change the law. What the people want clearly doesn't matter.